News article

RHE Global

Off-Grid Water – Four Reasons Not to Worry

By Journalist Will Hatchett and Private Water Consultant David Clapham

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RHE Global

9 May 2024

water supply
water supply
water supply

A change of guidance on the regulations means that the number of private water supplies requiring risk assessment and sampling has significantly increased, at a time when resources are thinly stretched.

Private Water Consultant David Clapham gives some practical advice on tackling what, for many councils, is a daunting responsibility . . .

It’s strange how private water supplies come off and on the radar of regulatory attention. Ensuring their safety is one of those EHO duties that can either be very important or not important at all. Doing the work well requires detailed legislative and practical knowledge of a niche but highly important area. Enforcement is assisted by persistent and tactful people skills. These also, sadly, are becoming less common than they were, with fewer EHOs treading familiar beats and engaging in face-to-face contact.

There’s another issue: private water legislation assumes that if there is a problem, a notice must and will be served – no ifs. These days, most council enforcement policies favour advisory escalation, with notices served only as a last resort. It can be hard to reconcile these apparently conflicting enforcement cultures – ‘old school’ versus ‘softly softy’. But are they actually conflicting? Discuss. Surely, smart enforcement can combine both?

David Clapham is an EHO by profession and an expert in this area. He authors RIAMS guidance and has written a standard Clay’s series reference work on the topic, having specialised in private water supplies for 30 years, 13 of them as a consultant. Some users, he explains, are large – a stately home, a hospital, a factory, a theme park. Some are odd, like a Napoleonic-era fort in the Solent, or a vinegar manufacturer in the West Midlands. Most are small – down to a single dwelling.

Clapham has tramped down countless muddy lanes to inspect challengingly remote supplies. Very common is the farmer or cottage owner who insists: “My family has been drinking this water for generations and no-one has ever been ill.” How do you deal with that? It’s the private water supply version of the frustrating ‘hygiene hypothesis’ that every EHO occasionally comes up against: “Bugs are good for you.”

First comes a deep sigh, then a series of appropriately articulated microbiological, chemical, practical and historical arguments. For example, you might point out that in 2000, in Walkerton, Canada, 2,000 people became ill and seven died, including a two-year-old child, when a communal supply became contaminated with E. coli O157, from manure on farmland. “Yes,” comes the reply, “but my grandmother drank this water all her life . . .”

Uneven distribution

In terms of the totality of supplies, off-grid water is uncommon and unevenly distrusted, mainly in rural areas. It serves one percent of the English population, about twice that in Scotland. The most common supplies are boreholes, followed by springs. For springs, biological contamination from pastureland run-off poses the greatest risk; for boreholes, it’s chemicals from the rocks that surface water has percolated through – fortunately, often, a long way.

For small users, in most cases, treatment involving filtration to precipitate minerals, oxygenation and disinfection using UV lamps costing a few hundred pounds can make water safe. Reverse osmosis filters, now affordable for small applications with particularly difficult problems, are also available. But, stresses Clapham, who trains EHOs in this area, source, pathway and receptor can work in myriad combinations – no two supplies are exactly the same.

Private water supplies, previously lightly regulated, first came onto the antennae of EHOs with regulations attached to the Water Industry Act 1991. The new duties ignited a career-long passion for Clapham and were the subject of his MSc research dissertation at Leeds University.

In 2009, new private water regulations augmented sampling with risk assessment. But sampling, he explains, which is cheaper than risk assessment, only goes so far as a public health tool, because, for springs, the level of contamination detected tends to correlate directly to rainfall. A supply can be unsafe one day and safe a few days later.

Legally, all private water supplies must be risk assessed every five years. Sampling is additionally required on a one- to five-year cycle, depending on whether the water is used by the public or to produce food, the size of supply and its consequent health implications. In some cases, this area of EHO work is not being done. Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) returns show that, in 2022, in England, only about 25% of smaller domestic private supplies had an in-date risk assessment. For large commercial users, it was 47%. In total, 13,000 supplies required a risk assessment.

Changes to Regulation 8

Regulation 8 of the new rules applied in 2009 added a new category – distributed supplies. This relates to water that comes from a mains water supply and is piped, normally without storage or treatment, to end users, for example on a caravan park or an industrial estate, who pay an intermediary other than a water company.

Environmental health services argued, justifiably, that the health risks in this scenario are extremely low. As reflected by DWI statistics, they did not devote thousands of EHO hours to pursuing what they viewed as a theoretical low risk. In recognition, in April 2013, the guidance was significantly modified. One caravan park from now on would count as a single premises and thus not a Regulation 8 supply at all. This significantly cut EHOs’ workloads and allowed them to concentrate on other work.

Here’s the significant news: following legal advice received by civil servants at the DWI, from January, the 2013 Regulation 8 guidance has been removed and the situation now seems to be the same as it was in 2009. In some cases, this will be significant for already hard-pressed environmental health services. The re-interpretation has added a new dimension to an escalating problem and to a growing list of things that need to be done by fewer people. Meanwhile, because money is tight, training budgets have often been cut.

Clapham says: “If you think of seaside authorities, for example, they may have hundreds of campsites and permanent and semi-permanent caravan sites. All of a sudden, they have a great deal of work, when there isn’t a huge risk because, in most cases, it’s just re-distributed mains water, which is not exposed to contaminants, going down proper pipes, with no tanks and no extra treatment. But you can never be completely sure.”

Can you afford to take that risk? Clearly not. Clapham observes: “I say to colleagues, ‘if you’ve gone along and you’ve risk assessed or sampled a supply and it is contaminated with faecal material and you haven’t served a notice, and a child contracts E. coli and dies, you’ll need to ask yourself, do you bear some responsibility’?”

There’s more bad news: the guidance suggests that enforcing this area also requires knowledge of the similarly complex Water Fittings Regulations.

Don’t worry – you’ve got this

But don’t worry, whether you are a service manager or practitioner, there are at least four reasons why this situation is not as concerning as it may, at first sight, appear. One – notices served regarding private water supplies that have been appealed against have always been upheld. 

Two – risk assessment and sampling are chargeable and designed to be self-financing. There is no maximum charge in England. Typically, a risk assessment would cost in the region of £360.

Three – private water suppliers could be sent a Section 85 notice, under the Water Industry Act, requiring them to send information. It’s an old wrinkle. There is no appeal. If it’s ignored, it’s an offence. This approach can often reveal who is legally responsible for the supply.

Four – it’s not rocket science. Training for those new to this area of work or for those who are already doing it but in need of a refresher is available. A few hours in the classroom or on-line and a few field visits is enough, in nearly all cases, to equip staff with the skills that they need to risk assess supplies with confidence. To help equip environmental health services, RHE Global is running some training courses.

Book reference

https://www.routledge.com/Small-Water-Supplies-A-Practical-Guide/Clapham/p/book/9780367393724?source=shoppingads&locale=en-GBP&gad_source=1&gclid=CjwKCAjwouexBhAuEiwAtW_Zx99Dpu9K002pIpmd078zcqLg_dhrDkuR7W3FKRntXLBcSma0Ssx_NxoCQNoQAvD_BwE

William Hatchett. Journalist



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© 2023 RH Environmental Limited trading as RHE Global. All rights reserved.

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© 2023 RH Environmental Limited trading as RHE Global. All rights reserved.

Don’t miss a thing

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© 2023 RH Environmental Limited trading as RHE Global. All rights reserved.