A win for rivers: Britain’s first water neutral zone set to go live in the next six months

3 minutes James Overington
  • Wildfish
  • Wildfish
  • Wildfish
  • Wildfish

After yesterday’s amendments to nutrient neutrality rules, WildFish looks at water neutrality – which is soon to be adopted in an area of Southern England. Given the government’s latest decision, it seems likely that water neutrality will face stiff opposition from developers – who at the moment must feel like they are on the front foot.

Water supply deficits are set to increase across England. The unmanageable conditions experienced in the South West last summer are a sign of what is to come. Increases in temperature, extreme weather and population will further expose England’s unpreparedness for drought – which stems from decades of underinvestment in water supply infrastructure.

Water supply solutions alone will not be enough to keep England in surplus. Demand management will be essential to attain resilient water supplies. Water Neutrality would be a beneficial tool to manage demand and its implementation is long overdue.

The Environment Agency’s definition of water neutrality is:

For every new development, the predicted increase in total water demand in the region due to the development should be offset by reducing demand in the existing community”.

Water neutrality is not a new concept. In 2007, WildFish wrote to the government recommending that any new homes, built in water-scarce areas, be water neutral. This recommendation was not acted upon and 15 years later, we are still without any water neutral zones – but this may be about to change.

Due to ongoing underinvestment and poor water resource management, one of Southern Water’s supply areas is set to become England’s first water neutral zone. ‘Sussex North’ is one of the least water resilient areas in the country with only one abstraction point on the River Arun.

In addition, Natural England have been unable to rule out the abstraction point as a cause of decline to protected sites in the Arun Valley. Owing to this, Natural England have advised that any development within the zone must not add to this impact. Southern Water and the local council are collaborating to establish a water neutral zone. Sussex North Offsetting Water Scheme (SNOWS) should go live later in 2023 or early 2024 according to Southern Water.

The creation of England’s first water neutral zone could set a key precedent for the future of water resource management. WildFish would like to see water neutrality adopted all over the country – as has been achieved with nutrient neutrality.

Water neutral zones should target:

  • Abstraction points causing adverse harm to the local environment
  • Abstraction points found to be over-abstracting the local watercourse
  • Areas with water deficits during drought.

For a development to be approved in a water neutral zone it must not add to the existing demand for water. To achieve this developers must construct water efficient buildings to keep the demand for water low. Water efficient technology includes water harvesting and recycling. To reduce the demand to zero the developer will likely be required to retrofit this technology into existing building stock.

In nutrient neutral areas, developers have installed private wastewater treatment plants – possibly we would start seeing private water storage infrastructure in water neutral areas. With water bills set to rise, water efficient ‘new builds’ could become increasingly desirable. Government grants have been awarded in the past to tackle energy efficiency – could we start to see the same level of investment injected into water efficiency?

The Sussex North water neutral zone will be setting the benchmark and the devil will be in the detail. Sound, scientific rationale must be applied when drawing up the ‘offsetting’ criteria, and the project must be ambitious and uncompromising in its delivery to avoid any slack loopholes that could be exploited by developers.

Yesterday’s government announcement to carve away at nutrient neutrality rules is highly concerning and shows that this government is not serious about protecting our rivers and wild fish. We hope this doesn’t spell trouble for any large-scale roll-out of water neutrality, which is a must to help protect water supply for people and wildlife.

By: James Overington
Water Policy Officer
A win for rivers: Britain’s first water neutral zone set to go live in the next six months - Wildfish
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