From Tap to Source: Your Water Supply Laid Bare

Our October meeting, held jointly with the Royal Geographical Society, turned to the topic of our water supply, when we welcomed Caroline Maddox from South Staffordshire Water Plc. To begin at the beginning; the South Staffs Waterworks Company was established in 1853, founded on the growing concern over outbreaks of cholera in the Black Country caused by contaminated water supplies. New, purer, supplies were needed. A source was identified at Lichfield, where Minster Pool became effectively a reservoir for the Black Country, later joined by the excavation of Stowe Pool. Sandfields Pumping Station provided the power to pump water through a pipeline, laid along the Lichfield to Walsall railway line, into the Black Country. This supply was supplemented by boreholes, tapping underground aquifers. The company subsequently grew geographically beyond the Black Country through a series of company takeovers. The large new reservoir at Blithfield was opened in 1953. Minster Pool and Stowe Pool were not relinquished until the 1950s, when they ceased to be part of the water supply and were taken over by the City Council. Lichfield, meanwhile, had remained aloof from these arrangements, receiving some supplies until the 1960s from the Conduit Lands Trust. South Staffs Water was acquired by KKR, an American multinational, in 2013; the company also owns Cambridge Water.

Fast forward to today and South Staffs Water supplies 1.7 million people in 610 thousand properties, embracing an area of 578 sq miles from Uttoxeter in the north to Halesowen in the south. In addition, it serves 36 thousand business properties. It does this with over 3500 miles of pipes. About 40% of the water supplied comes from surface catchment reservoirs and the River Severn and the remaining 60% from 25 artesian wells (ie boreholes) tapping underground aquifers. How is this used? Well, 25% is used in toilets; 33% for bathing and showering and 14% is used for clothes washing. Not surprisingly, we were told that domestic demand is on the increase. It has grown 5.2% in the last 12 months alone, with individuals using, on average, 150 litres of water daily.

However obtained, water is subjected to a rigorous treatment regime to render it suitable to drink. These filtration and chemical processes were briefly explained to us by Caroline. Treated water is stored in covered service reservoirs prior to distribution. Not surprisingly, a large part of her presentation was occupied by messages aimed at encouraging us to save water. These were backed up by the distribution of gadgets to reduce consumption in cisterns and sinks. Did we know, for instance, that a leaky tap dripping once a second wastes 33 litres of water daily? Or that cleaning your teeth with a running tap uses 10 litres of water? Use a garden sprinkler for one hour and you'll use as much water as a family of four does in a whole day. If you have a water meter installed, then you are paying for these volumes too! On the wider stage, it takes 130 litres of water to make a bicycle, 9 to manufacture your daily paper and 3 to make a pint of beer.

However, perhaps most worrying of all, only 1% of the water on the planet is fresh AND available for consumption. At a time when our attention is focused on the threat of global warming, this frightening statistic is perhaps overlooked by many of us. Perhaps it's time to stop taking the ready availability of water for granted.

Roger Hockney
October 2015