Water company 'squandered' an entire reservoir

Privatised utilities: Inquiry into how millions of gallons allowed to e scape as taps ran dry
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The Independent Online
South West Water, Britain's highest-charging water authority, wasted the contents of an entire reservoir during last summer's drought, it emerged yesterday.

The National Rivers Authority (NRA) has ordered an inquiry into how the company, which uses the region's rivers as natural pipelines for the reservoirs, allowed millions of gallons of water to flow into the sea while taps ran dry.

The company has admitted that hundreds of millions of gallons of water flowed out into the sea instead of reaching customers' homes, BBC Radio 5 Live reported yesterday.

Robin Simpson, of the National Consumer Council, told the radio station that customers had a right to feel aggrieved. "It's very serious indeed," he said. "If the public perceive that the company itself is not being efficient in the use of water then they will naturally ask themselves 'Why should I take a shower instead of a bath, why should I stop hosing the lawn?' "

The NRA is now asking South West Water to tighten up its reservoir systems regardless of cost to prevent a repeat of last summer's debacle.

The company has been involved in controversy since privatisation. A year ago, with an average yearly bill to customers of pounds 304, it asked the Government to give extra benefits to help the poor pay their bills. It was also condemned in the Commons for awarding big pay rises to its bosses while taps ran dry in some parts of the region last summer.

Bob Baty, South West Water's engineering and scientific director, said at a news conference in Exeter yesterday that water took three days to travel from Roadford Reservoir via the Tamar to customers' taps and "we cannot precisely predict the level of demand from customers three days in advance".

He added: "We have learned some lessons from the exceptional summer and our recently announced pounds 20m package of drought-beating measures for 1996 will improve the amount of water that will be available for customers' essential use."

A spokesman for South West Water later denied allegations of mismanagement and said the water was not "wasted" because it benefited the environment even if it did not reach customers.

"This is the first time that this magnitude of demand has been placed on it and there are a number of issues emerging and we want to learn from the experience," he said.

"It is a very fine juggling act. We have to supply enough water to meet peak demand and we have to keep the flow in the river at a certain level."

t A decision by Yorkshire Water to put its prices up as much as it is allowed was yesterday branded "obscene" by customers and criticised by MPs who have promised to raise the matter with Ofwat, the industry regulator. The company has announced a 5.6 per cent increase in charges - 2.55 per cent above inflation and the maximum rise that Ofwat will permit.

Yorkshire Water, which spent millions of pounds last year on an emergency tankering operation to avoid rota water cuts, said the rise was needed to pay for a pounds 1.5bn investment programme over the next five years.