More water for Brits, but at what cost?

Workers walk past water swirling in salinity tanks at Britain's first-ever mainland de-salination plant, which is known as the Thames Gateway Water Treatment Works in Beckton, England. Situated east of London, the £270m plant will, when required, turn a mixture of seawater and river water from the tidal River Thames into drinking water for Londoners. This is the world's first four-stage reverse osmosis water treatment works and it is able to produce 150 million liters of water per day -- enough to supply 400,000 homes or one million people when fully operational.


Kai Ryssdal: You can put aside those images you may have of the weather in London being all rain and fog and dreariness. This is actually a hot, dry summer in the British capital -- where, as it happens, they have just opened their first version of a facility more common in traditionally parched places: Britain's first large-scale desalination plant. But the chosen method of turning salty sea water into drinking water isn't going down well with the environmental crowd.

From London, Christopher Werth reports.

Christopher Werth: Getting salt out of seawater is a complicated process. Luckily, project foreman Graham Baker is here to guide me through it. He beams as he shows me around London's new $370 million desalination plant. He hands me a hard hat and a bright yellow safety vest, and then begins climbing a flight of stairs to the top of a set of giant concrete tanks.

Graham Baker: Oh, they're running! Basically filling the tanks up now.

At the top, we're met by the roaring sound of water, and the wide expanse of the River Thames as it stretches towards the North Sea.

Baker: I think the tide is on the way in at the moment. There's only certain times they're allowed to draw the water, and that is on the incoming tide.

From here, the water passes through a series of filters before it can be pumped on to thirsty customers all over the British capital. Barry Clarke of the industry association Water U.K., says the desalination plant has come just in time. He says while London has a reputation as a rainy place, its large population outweighs the rainfall it gets. And according to some projections, the city could add upwards of a million more people in the next two decades.

Barry Clarke Really by comparison with some Mediterranean countries, even like Israel, we have less water per person than even those countries.

And Britain's water woes are being aggravated by climate change. The U.K.'s Environment Agency projects that by 2050 global warming could reduce water resources by as much as 15 percent. That's helped classify London as an area of "serious water stress," and made it, and many other parts of the U.K., a surprising new market for the desalination industry. Other plants have been proposed, although Clarke expects the industry's growth to be limited.

Clarke: Do I think that desalination plants are going to spring up everywhere over the United Kingdom and England? No, I don't. But it's an important technology, and we will never turn our backs on it.

But that technology is also energy intensive, which is why environmental groups have opposed desalination. Darren Johnson is a member of the London Assembly for the Green Party. He says much more should be done to address a more pressing problem: The fact that the city loses over 100 million gallons a day from its leaky, Victorian-era pipes.

Darren Johnson: The problem is we are wasting away the water that we have coming into the city, and we should be making that a priority rather than using this desalination plant, which has a huge impact in terms of energy use.

Thames Water, the company operating the plant, says it plans to use renewable energy to run the facility, and will only turn it on during dry periods. But even then, Johnson says not enough people are aware of just how much water they use. Only about 30 percent of London households pay for their water through metering, compared to roughly 94 percent in a city such as New York. Increasing the number of meters could help to cut water consumption, but with the public often resistant, that could be tougher than a little task like removing salt from the sea.

In London, I'm Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

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In regards to the following statement in Tuesday's show:

"... Johnson says not enough people are aware of just how much water they use. Only about 30 percent of London households pay for their water through metering, compared to roughly 94 percent in a city such as New York."

This gives the impression that almost all New Yorkers are aware of how much water they use, which is very misleading. Granted the word "households" is used as a qualifier, but are households the majority type of residence in New York City? No. Most people live in multifamily residential buildings. And very few of these are direct-metered for water.

I would like to know the true percentage of New Yorkers who pay their own water bill, or even the number of residential-type water meters divided by the total number of residents.

THE POLICE HAVE WRITTEN TO ME: “..your attempts at whistleblowing are being ignored but unfortunately this does not constitute a crime for which the police should be involved”.
(What a sad indictment on the state of democracy in present day Britain!)

I have the long-term condition of Aspergers syndrome. In my role at Thames Water of “Concepts Designer" (i.e. inventor * ) I often spent lengthy periods "brainstorming" in relative isolation. On 25th April 2001 I was physically abused by a senior Thames Water manager (unprovoked, documented). This occurred soon after I had finally hit upon the answers to very challenging problems in a variety of projects. It was also at a stage when I received the clear message from TW management that they were not serious about helping me regards (verbal & written) concerns I raised, in year 2000, relating to the negative behaviour of some of my work colleagues.
* The following, from an esp@cenet “results list”, provides an indication of my background: “Approx. 60 results found in the Worldwide database for: sanders trevor george as the inventor”
Life at Thames Water became unbearable for me and in April 2003, after 40years loyal service, I left the company. At the same time, one of my (alleged) main perpetrators left Thames Water to become head of a UK Government agency.
I am confident that an investigation into the behaviour ** of TW management from year 2000 onwards will reveal numerous criminal and civil offences, but after several years experiencing obfuscation and evasiveness, I no longer have trust or confidence in any UK public body - in particular the Police. I have exchanged personally-signed letters with Mr Philip Fletcher, now CBE & Chairman of Ofwat (formerly Chief Executive), Ms Regina Finn (Chief Executive, Ofwat), Mr Tony Smith (was at Ofwat, now promoted to Chief Executive at Consumer Council for Water) and Mr David Owens (formerly Chief Executive of Thames Water). And I have written to TW Directors, including Mr Richard Aylard. They all appear to be as proactive as garden gnomes regarding these serious issues - issues detrimental to the worldwide community and environment.
** This behaviour (and my refusal to sign Intellectual Property documents without TW answering important questions relating to its content) has, from my perspective, resulted in a range of adverse effects – including the failure of TW to implement proven new technology which would have meant a vastly different outcome to the current scandalous situation of, for example:
Thames Water's average leakage in 1999 was 662 mega litres per day. Thames Water's average leakage in 2009 was 700 mega litres per day. The above increase in leakage occurred despite Thames Water having spent £billions of our money over the past decade, and despite zonal water pressures now being so low that some domestic boilers no longer function properly unless the consumer provides a boost pressure.
From my perspective there are links between the above scandalous situation and:
(i) Since early 2004 I have repeatedly been asked to sign highly valuable Intellectual Property
documents. I signed one I.P. document under extreme duress, after coming close to death at the end of a protest hunger strike subsequent to a (alleged) false Police arrest.
Despite feeling intimidated by other requests to sign Intellectual Property documents, I refused.
(ii) Between August 2003 and April 2004 Thames Water increased its predicted spend by more
than £0.5 billion. This was at a time when consumer associations were calling for a reduction.
(iii)Thames Water has failed to “reinstate” my name as inventor for a highly valuable granted
patent - despite a written commitment in 2004, from a TW Director, to reinstate my name.
(iv)In an April'10 Evening Standard newspaper article, relating to the road traffic chaos caused by Thames Water's Victorian Mains Replacement Programme, a Thames Water spokesperson
is quoted as stating that TW's aims are now even less ambitious than before - they now aim to just prevent leakage becoming worse than it is at present.

Here in Ireland, the water is free!!!

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