DOCTOR ON THE HOUSE

Hose-pipe ban? For four grand, says Jeff Howell, there's boring way to beat the drought (and get back at the fat cats)
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The Independent Online
If the discussion on site is anything to go by, the water companies are going to have a bit of a job persuading people to save water this summer. The old Water Board could have appealed to the consumer's sense of public duty, and self preservation. Not that we had droughts in those days, of course. Well, we had one once, in 1976, under the last Labour government, but the appointment of my namesake, Dennis Howell, as emergency Minister for Droughts, ensured immediate and continuous flood conditions for the remainder of the decade.

The privatised water companies have managed to get up everyone's nose, though. The feeling on site is that since we are now contributing to the company's profits, it is up to them to make sure the stuff keeps coming out of the taps. Coming on top of the recent desertion of the site's Tory front line troops to the ranks of the Blairistas, this is starting to sound like something of a revolution. That is nothing, however, compared with the positively anarchist sentiments aroused by the plumber's news about boreholes. Apparently, there are people in Essex who are having done with the water companies and all their works and pomps, and are drilling for water in their own back gardens.

Of course, having your own well or borehole is nothing new. Most of the population got their water from boreholes throughout the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries. It was only when filtered water started to be piped in, under pressure, that "the mains" became a better source of supply. Now, though, the borehole is undergoing something of a resurgence. After the initial expense of having the hole drilled - about three or four grand - you've got free water for life; private domestic users are allowed to extract four thousand gallons per day - no metering, no hose pipe bans. Firms that drill boreholes are going into overdrive - they just can't sink them fast enough. Farmers are major users, of course, and some of them are being a bit naughty, because commercial users are supposed to pay for a licence from the Environment Agency - apparently, drillers are now being asked to do a lot of night work behind hoardings, or even from inside barns.

Environmentally, however, there would seem to be no reason why private borehole usage shouldn't be more advantageous. For a start, you're pumping the water straight from the aquifer to the point of use, avoiding losses due to evaporation and leakage en route. You are also going to be as sparing as you can - you've still got to pay for the pumping, usually by submersible electric pump. And the fact is that anyone who has gone to the trouble of sinking a borehole is already aware of the implications of ground water, aquifers and water tables - which is more than can be said of the other 99.9 per cent of the population, who leave the tap running while they clean their teeth and then tut tut at TV news programmes showing rivers running dry.

You don't need an old hippie with a forked willow twig to look for water, by the way; you just consult a hydro-geological map. Much of the southern half of the UK has water-bearing chalk at a reasonable depth, and some of the sandstones in Wales and the North will also yield a good supply. Or you can just consult your local well borer, out of the Yellow Pages; and yes, the index really does contain the entry "Boring - see Civil Engineers".

Jeff Howell discusses boreholes on Channel 5's 'Hot Property' on Monday at 8pm

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