Watchdog slammed South West Water for not being “honest, open and transparent” about drought risks, documents reveal

South West Water was inadequately prepared for England’s 2022 heatwave and was “not honest” with regulators about the risk a drought posed to the company’s water supplies, according to an Environment Agency (EA) assessment obtained by Greenpeace’s investigative unit Unearthed[1]. The environmental regulator told counterparts at Ofwat that South West Water (SWW) had shown “complacency” prior to the drought and “a lack of understanding of their own supply system”.

Read the full story with source documents and reaction on Unearthed here.

As revealed by a previous Unearthed investigation, parts of England almost ran out of water during the drought in 2022, which was the UK’s hottest year on record. Three of SWW’s reservoirs hit record lows, and the EA warned that some water companies – Southern Water and Yorkshire Water – might break the law to keep the taps running[2].

Documents obtained by Unearthed under freedom of information laws reveal the environmental watchdog’s scathing assessment of SWW’s drought preparedness. “SWW were not honest, open and transparent with regulators about their drought projections and potential risks to security of supply,” the EA wrote in a July email to Ofwat. The email said “SWW acted too late” in response to the drought, and that this “presented a genuine risk of loss of supply in West Cornwall”.

In another passage, the EA also told Ofwat that before the drought SWW showed “a lack of understanding of their own supply system, considering themselves as a potential water donor in the future, only to find the reverse is true.” Prior to the 2022 heatwave, SWW’s long-term water management plan anticipated that it would have enough water to be able to donate supplies to neighbouring companies experiencing shortages[3]. By contrast, its latest plan states that it needs to close a gap of over 200 million litres of water per day by 2050 in order to meet demand.

The revelations come after Pennon Group, the listed company that owns SWW and provides water to 3.5m people across the SW, increased its interim dividend to shareholders by 8.3% last autumn, despite the water firm reporting a fall in profits and receiving a record fine for illegal sewage pollution. SWW is also being investigated by Ofwat over the accuracy of its leakage and consumption data. On Friday it was revealed that Pennon had bought Sutton and East Surrey Water.

The environmental regulator told Ofwat that SWW’s drought plan prior to the 2022 heatwave was “not ‘drought ready’”. This meant that new water sources and permits had to “be considered, applied for and permitted during the drought instead of planned in advance.” It added that the company had “not adequately managed consistently increasing demand in the years prior to the drought”. England’s privatised water companies have come under increased public scrutiny in recent years, as a result of pollution incidents, spiralling debt and dividends.

In August 2022, Rishi Sunak, then a Conservative leadership candidate, complained that water supply didn’t have the attention it deserved, promised to “build the resilience of our water infrastructure” and threatened that “when it comes to enforcement, nothing is off the table”. In response to Unearthed’s investigation, Megan Corton Scott, political campaigner for Greenpeace UK, said:

“South West Water have failed in tackling the sewage crisis, failed to prepare for drought, failed to even understand their own supply system and failed to be honest with the regulator, but they did succeed in raising shareholder dividends at the end of last year. Rishi Sunak promised tough enforcement and a more resilient water infrastructure. Given this platform of incompetence and blatant money grabbing, how long can the government stand idly by and let this company continue to control such a critical part of the nation’s resources?”

The EA has warned that England is set to run short of water by 2045, due to climate change and population change. No new reservoirs have been built in the UK in the last 30 years and water companies have made limited progress in reducing leaks and keeping up with demand reduction targets, according to the latest adaptation report published by the Climate Change Committee (CCC), the government’s statutory climate advisor.

Read the full story with source documents and reaction on Unearthed here.