New reservoirs could help fight drought, but at what cost?

in an old one Wood in Hampshire, a county in southern England, construction workers fell trees and cleared tree stumps. Over the shoulders of the workers, ecologists check whether bats or bird nests are disturbed. They are building a road that will eventually lead to 160 acres of grassland where Portsmouth Water, the utility that manages the water supply here, will build a reservoir.

The reservoir will be located in a clay valley, so its water will be naturally sealed off by the surrounding forests. Portsmouth Water aims to fill it from nearby sources by 2029. If everything goes according to plan, the reservoir will supply up to 21 million liters of water a day for around 160,000 people in south-east England.

That might sound like a lot, but 160,000 people isn’t very much, by and large — especially on an island that, like many parts of the world this year, is suffering from water shortages. The UK has been hit by extreme heat this summer and is grappling with its worst drought in almost 50 years. Farmers were forbidden from drawing river water, and residents were forbidden from using hoses to water their gardens, wash their cars, or fill swimming pools. With more heatwaves and droughts likely in the future, this is a sign that the UK will need greater water supplies. And yet this proposed reservoir will be the first to be built in southern England since the 1970s. Building new facilities may seem like a simple solution at a time when more water is needed – but the reality is more complicated.

It’s not that water companies in the UK didn’t have other projects in the works. But it takes about 10 years from the decision to build a new reservoir to using the water. When originally planned in the late 1960s, the Kielder Water Reservoir in north-east England was intended to provide water for the steel and chemical industries in the region. However, by the time it was inaugurated in 1982, so much time had elapsed that those industries had shut down. Branded as the white elephant when it opened, thousands of tourists now flock to Northumberland every year to see Britain’s largest artificial lake.

And it can cost hundreds of millions to build: Portsmouth Water’s new reservoir will cost over £120 million ($140 million) to build, despite its small size. Two new reservoirs being built by Anglian Water in east England are expected to cost a total of £3.3 billion ($3.79 billion) and will not actually provide water until 2035 at best.

“Companies, or even the Environment Agency, are reluctant to allow a new reservoir to be built unless there is real evidence of it,” says Chris Binnie, an independent consultant who advises government agencies and companies on water resource development in the UK.

Another reason no reservoirs have been built recently, according to Binnie, is that water use has become more efficient in recent decades due to the privatization of the sector. Since the widespread introduction of water meters in households, consumption has fallen significantly. Some British water companies even sold reservoirs to land developers because they could no longer use water from them.

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