Canals could beat South's thirst

Drought measures: Inland waterways seen as foundation for national grid to carry supplies from Wales and the North-west
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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

The owner of Britain's canals hopes to use long stretches of the 2,000- mile network as the foundation of a national water grid. The state-owned British Waterways Board believes the drought has made its plans for turning canals into aqueducts more attractive to the privatised water companies.

Water would flow from Wales and the North-west of England via the Midlands into the Anglian and South-east regions, where rainfall is lower and demand for water is growing with the number of households.

John Taylor, the board's water development manager, said canals already carried more than 100 million gallons a day for industries and water companies, earning pounds 3m a year. Bristol gets half its supply through the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. The engineering consultants Binnie and Partners have produced a study for the board on how the canals could move water taken from rivers, reservoirs or boreholes across England. It would then be pumped into rivers such as the Thames, where it would be taken out at existing bankside purification plants, treated and put into supply. ''It would be a way of moving towards a water grid relatively cheaply,'' said Mr Taylor.

Boating and fishing on the canals would continue. They would have to be deepened by dredging to carry more water, and pumping stations would be needed to move it up flights of locks. Mr Taylor said the capital costs of one scheme for moving water from the North-west to the Midlands were pounds 20m. ''That is a flea bite compared to the sums the big water companies are investing.''

The National Rivers Authority, the Government's water pollution and resources watchdog, has serious doubts. Moving water from one river into another could change the latter's water quality, possibly harming aquatic life. It could also spread wildlife diseases across the country.

''There is some work to be done on that, but I think the environmental problems could be overcome,'' said Mr Taylor. An increased flow of water through the canals would also improve their water quality and benefit wildlife, he added.

In a report on water resources published last year, the rivers authority also questioned whether building pipelines might not be cheaper than using the canals.

But the drought has prompted the the water companies to reassess their demand forecasts for the next two decades. Before this summer, they had tended to agree with the rivers authority that only a few major new water resources would have to be developed: mains leakage could be cut and the gradual spread of water metering would curb household demand.

Now they believe privatisation and rising bills may have changed public attitudes, with customers less willing to listen to calls for restraint during long dry spells.