Protecting water supply from floods - the water companies' view.

In the wake of the serious floods which affected communities in the north of England and Scottish borders this winter, we spoke to water companies and BITC Water Taskforce members Yorkshire Water and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water about responding to the crisis, the challenges of water management against a background of climate change, and the steps they're taking to mitigate the effects of flooding in the future. 

Gary Collins, Flood Risk and Engagement Manager at Yorkshire Water

Steve Wilson, Director of Wastewater Services

Here's what Gary Collins, Flood Risk and Engagement Manager at Yorkshire Water (top) and Steve Wilson, Director of Wastewater Services, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water (below) told us.

How did your company respond during and in the immediate aftermath of the floods to help your customers and their communities?

Gary: In the 48 hours following the event Yorkshire Water  provided a comprehensive emergency response by establishing a Company Incident Management Team (CIMT) to help co-ordinate our flood relief efforts throughout the affected areas.  We played a major role in the region’s flood response, with over 500 colleagues involved as well as staff playing key roles in the Strategic Gold Command groups set up for York, North Yorkshire and Calderdale. 

Despite the widespread flooding, all drinking water supplies were maintained and not a single customer lost their water supply as a result of the floods.

To help support customers, we have also suspended all charges for those forced out of their homes due to these floods, as we recognise that many are going through a terrible time right now, and we want to help them get back on their feet as quickly as possible. 

Finally, we have now carried out a number of full and temporary repairs of our assets to minimise the impact on the environment and our customers. We have also set up a Flood Recovery Group to continue to restore our assets to full function.

Steve: We had a very busy time over this Christmas period dealing with the flooding, especially in north Wales around Boxing Day, when many of our team came out and assisted customers dealing with the really horrible consequences of flooding. Customers don’t care whether a flood has come from the river, highway drains or from the sewers, they just want the problem solving. There was great partnership work between colleagues from Natural Resources Wales, the local authorities and ourselves.

We also had a request in from Yorkshire Water to help them out with all the floods in Yorkshire. It was great to see ten of our colleagues volunteer to go up and work on New Year’s Eve and Day and through the following weekend. They supported people in Yorkshire who’d been flooded from their homes, clearing blockages and drains so they could return. We actually had more volunteers that we needed - a fantastic response from our teams who were willing to give up their Christmas to support customers.

With flooding becoming an increasingly common event in the UK, what's your longer term strategy to adapt to this and help mitigate its effects?

Data from the Met Office shows that the amount of heavy rainfall events have increased significantly over the last 50 years due to the warmer atmosphere being able to hold more moisture. As a result, heavy rainfall events are likely to happen five times more often in the future, as global warming continues to change our climate.

- Gary Collins,
Flood Risk and Engagement Manager, Yorkshire Water
Gary: Traditionally, we use a range of operational and investment responses to manage sewer flooding caused by heavy rainfall.  For example, a typical investment response to flooding might be to increase sewer and pumping capacity. 

However, this approach is becoming increasingly unsustainable both financially and environmentally, so we are responding by broadening our portfolio of response options.  For example, we’re using advanced modelling techniques to better understand sewer network capacity and pinch points, enabling targeted intervention.  This is increasingly helping us to address failures before they impact the customer or the environment. 

By working with others and using storm water management techniques like Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS), we plan to reduce the amount of rainwater entering the sewer.  This rain water can instead be put to good use if held higher in a catchment for longer, helping mitigate flooding and benefiting biodiversity, water resources and agriculture, for example.

Steve: The frequency and intensity of rainfall events that we’re having to deal with means we can no longer keep operating the same way.

At Welsh Water, we’re working hard to develop our RainScape solutions. These are innovative ways of taking surface water out of the sewer network to prevent sewer flooding, and hold that water in green infrastructure within the community.  That slows it down and reduces the risk of flooding in urban environments.

We’re doing the most retrofitting in the UK of this sustainable urban drainage, in the Llanelli and Swansea areas with plans to develop more of these solutions across Wales.  More schemes will kick off in Llandudno in the next 12-18 months.

What effects do you see a changed UK climate having on your company and industry?

Gary: Since the 2007 floods, Yorkshire Water has invested more than £50m in re-building several flood damaged waste water treatment works and pumping stations, as well as raising critical equipment above the flood depths. Key water pumping stations have also been upgraded with flood walls so they can continue to pump drinking water during flood events.

Across the UK there is evidence that water and waste water services need to become more resilient to the challenges from the weather of today and tomorrow. We are adapting our business by enhancing resilience to today's extreme weather and ensuring we can maintain affordable services as the climate changes over the long-term.

Steve: Not only have we got to adapt our sewer networks to be able to cope with climate change, but we need to make sure that our water treatment works, pumping stations and infrastructure are flood-proof as well.

You only have to look at the situation in Carlisle, where a number of power sub-stations, pumping stations and treatment works were knocked out by flooding, to see that how we protect them from flooding and return them to service as quick as possible will be a real focus for us over the next few years.

What do you think are the main actions that the water industry as a whole needs to take on flooding now?

Gary: It is crucial to adopt a multi-agency approach, working with other organisations, to effectively respond to the multiple challenges flooding brings. We work closely with all stakeholders including councils, government officials, emergency services, the Environment Agency to ensure a partnership approach that leads to the most appropriate and joined up response to flooding incidents.

Steve: No one agency can sort this out on their own. There needs to be more joined up work between Natural Resources Wales, the Environment Agency, local authorities, government and the water companies, as well as wider society.  We all need to work together to climate change-proof our towns, cities and villages, and deal with this in a much more catchment-driven way.

If you would like to make a donation to help those flooding, please visit Prince’s Countryside Fund Winter Flood Appeal website.

Find out more about business resilience with The Prince's Business Emergency Resilience Group (BERG).

See who else works alongside Yorkshire Water and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water on Business in the Community's Water Taskforce.