Southern Water’s ‘water recycling’ proposal

Update – 23 January ’23
If you missed the segments on today’s BBC Radio Solent morning programme covering the Southern Water Water Recycling Proposal, you can find them, edited together, at this post.

If you’re keeping your eye on the local press at the moment, you will probably have seen news stories referring to Southern Water’s proposal for ‘water recycling’. If you’ve missed them, just enter the following string of words – ‘Havant, Southern, Water, Recycling, Reservoir‘ – into your favourite search engine and take a look through the first couple of pages of links returned. You should find several references to Southern Water’s proposal to recycle the output from its sewage works at Budds Farm, filtering it further before pumping it up into Portsmouth Water’s Havant Thicket reservoir, currently under construction to the north of the town.

Much of the public discussion centres around the single issue of Southern Water’s proposal to pump recycled effluent into the reservoir. There are, however, other serious questions raised and the company’s proposal warrants more than just a ‘single issue’ response from Havant residents.

Regardless of the terminology used, ‘effluent output from a sewage farm’, or ‘recycled water from a wastewater treatment plant’, the end product is still the same. If the Southern Water proposal goes ahead without the regulatory bodies revisiting the possible alternatives in the context of current delivery schedules, then Portsmouth Water’s original approved plan for a reservoir storing nothing other than Havant’s natural spring water is no more.

There are three water consultations currently taking place, available at the following links. Two of them – from Southern Water and its partners at Water Resources in the South East – are drafted with the assumption that the Havant water recycling plant will be approved. The third consultation is from Portsmouth Water.

Some history

In 2021, Havant Borough Council gave planning approval to Portsmouth Water for the development of the Havant Thicket reservoir, on the understanding that the sole source of input would be water diverted from Havant and Bedhampton’s renowned springs. A companion planning application for a new pipeline linking the Portsmouth Water facility at Bedhampton and the reservoir was approved at the same time. By building reservoir storage for the excess volume of winter rainfall which would otherwise drain straight to Langstone Harbour, Portsmouth Water would be able to safeguard this naturally available local supply.

Take a look at this recent Portsmouth Water promotional video and listen out for the following statement:

“The reservoir is an environmentally led project. By that, we mean that the reservoir is going to be filled up with water from local springs, and by providing that alternative source of water that means we can protect local wildlife habitats.”

Portsmouth Water promotional video from 2022

Southern Water’s proposal

Southern Water’s current proposal is to undertake a further stage of filtering in a new facility close to Budds Farm at Brockhampton West, using an engineering process termed ‘reverse osmosis‘. The underlying technology is relatively new to the UK water industry but is similar to that used in coastal desalination plants in the Middle East where the power needed is cheap, and where the source is seawater rather than effluent. The Havant plant, if built, would be the first of its kind in the UK to treat effluent from a wastewater treatment plant using reverse osmosis. It would be costly to build and energy-intensive to run, while there are believed to be more environmentally-safe and viable alternatives.

The output of this new treatment plant will still require further treatment – at Farlington, for Portsmouth Water customers and via a new pipeline to Otterbourne, for Southern Water customers. To enable this, Southern Water propose to pump up to 60 million litres of recycled effluent per day into the new reservoir where it will be blended with the spring water before passing to the two final treatment plants for processing into the water main network. This will involve laying another new pipeline through and under Bedhampton and parts of Leigh Park, to link the new recycling plant with the reservoir.

The issues

Point 1

If Southern Water’s water recycling project receives approval, then up to 60 million litres per day of recycled effluent from Budds Farm would be pumped to the reservoir, negating several of the advantages of the original reservoir proposal. The Chief Exec of Portsmouth Water has confirmed that Portsmouth Water customers will routinely receive water from the reservoir which will be a mix of recycled effluent and spring water if Southern Water’s plans go ahead. This represents a significant change of use relating to the previously approved Portsmouth Water planning application. The environmental impact of the introduction of recycled effluent to the reservoir has not been assessed.

Point 2

Southern Water proposes to build its water recycling plant on the former landfill site at Brockhampton West, sinking a large shaft down through the still-active waste and tunnelling three pipelines into it, one of which would run under the Hermitage stream from the sewage works at Budds Farm. The risk of contamination to the Langstone Harbour environment during both construction and operation, has not been quantified.

Point 3

In addition to Portsmouth Water’s already approved plans to run a new pipeline from the springs at Bedhampton to the Havant Thicket reservoir, Southern Water’s scheme would need to lay a separate pipeline through Bedhampton and Leigh Park to link the recycling plant to the reservoir. These separate pipeline laying activities will be extremely disruptive to local households and traffic for the rest of the decade.

Point 4

Given Southern Water’s poor track record in managing the leakages from its water distribution network and the discharges of untreated sewage from its water treatment plants, you might justifiably question their ability to safely manage a high-risk, high-tech, first-of-its kind, engineering challenge.

Point 5

Havant Borough Council will have no control over this application, beyond the opportunity we all have to respond to the consultations. Southern Water are seeking approval directly from the Secretary of State, defining its water recycling project as a ‘Nationally Significant Infrastructure Project’. If the Secretary of State grants Southern Water the Development Consent Order it seeks, then Havant Borough Council and Hampshire County Council would be cut out of the loop. This is the same approach recently proposed, and finally rejected, for the the controversial AQUIND Interconnector proposal in Portsmouth.

Point 6

Perhaps the strongest point of objection is that there are other environmentally sound, lower risk and lower cost alternative options available. For example, Southern Water’s previous ‘Water for Life’ strategic direction had also considered inter-region water transfer from new reservoirs in plan for both Bristol and Wessex water regions in the west, but had rejected them based on planned availability dates. However, now that Southern Water’s previous strategic proposal for a desalination plant near Fawley has been rejected, its own schedule dates slipped, potentially increasing the viability of these previously rejected options.

In summary

The draft Southern Water Plan has been submitted to the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for approval, as the government department responsible for water. After considering the above points and reading the various other references, you may wish to write directly to Defra, as the body which can exert the most influence on Southern Water, in order to register your comments. To make this simple, you can use this link to open your email application with the correct addressees and the appropriate subject line pre-set. (You may find it helpful to draft your response first in a separate file, copying and pasting your response into the body of this template email.)

You may also wish to respond to the individual consultations which you can find at the links given earlier in this post.

In any event, if you wish to respond, please do so before the consultation closing date of 20 February.