Pennine reservoirs ran dry and water rationing loomed – even mass evacuation was considered. With another long, hot summer approaching, Peter Lazenby asks could there be a repeat of ten years ago?
T'S a period anyone associated with Yorkshire Water will never forget. In 1995 the privatised company's Pennine reservoirs ran dry. The towns and cities of West Yorkshire faced the prospect of cut-offs and rationing. Water engineers installed stand-pipes in the streets.
At the same time more than one-third of Yorkshire Water's treated supplies were pouring into the ground from leaking pipes – evidence of a disastrous lack of investment in the ageing supply system. Appeals to conserve supplies were made to customers who regularly saw thousands of gallons of water fountaining away from burst mains, flooding streets and running to waste.
Yorkshire Water had reservoirs elsewhere, in the east of the county, with supplies to spare. But there was no way of moving sufficient water around the region – no pipelines capable of acting as lifelines to transfer supplies to West Yorkshire where the crisis threatened to turn into a disaster.
In desperation Yorkshire Water mobilised 1,000 tankers. The rumbling vehicles were used to transfer water from east to west, 24 hours a day, non-stop, with fresh drivers taking over the the wheel when other weary drivers had worked their shifts.
The company drew up a "cut off rota" in which the worst-hit districts would have their supplies disconnected for 24 hours, then restored for 24 hours, then disconnected again.
It came to within two weeks of implementing the rota.
As the crisis deepened there was even a proposal to evacuate the worst-hit West Yorkshire city, Bradford – 300,000 people, hospitals, old people's homes, businesses.
Environmentalists warned of disaster for wildlife when water abstraction from Dales rivers was pushed to the limit as the Government granted Yorkshire Water Drought Orders giving the company extra powers to deal with the crisis.
The company was summoned to Parliament to explain how it had allowed the crisis to happen, and its chief executive and chairman both later stood down.
There was fury among Yorkshire Water's long-suffering customers, who had seen their water bills climb 60 per cent since privatisation five years earlier.
In the streets they threatened Yorkshire Water officials who were installing stand-pipes.
Customers witnessed the unedifying spectacle of Yorkshire Water's chief executive demonstrating on TV how to wash thoroughly using just one small basinful of water. He said he had not had a bath for three months – and was then discovered to be scuttling to friends and relatives outside Yorkshire to bathe.
Now there's another long, hot and dry summer on the way, and Yorkshire Water is once again asking its customers to conserve supplies.
Will there be a repeat of 1995?
Yorkshire Water thinks not. But the company will never say never. It believes that would be tempting fate.
What the firm does say is that thanks an enormous invest programme a repeat of the near-disaster is highly unlikely.
Since 1995 Yorkshire Water has spent 200m installing new pipelines to pump supplies around the county from better-stocked areas to any hit by shortages. Between 1995 and 1998 it laid 240k of new mains and built 28 pumping stations.
It has also installed a pipeline linking the giant Kielder Dam in the north-east with the rivers of North Yorkshire at a cost of 50m. In the event of another crisis water would be pumped from the dam into the River Tees, then from the Tees via the overland pipeline into Yorkshire Dales rivers such as the Ure and the Swale to be carried down to the Ouse at York, from where it would be pumped from the east of the county into West Yorkshire.
One small section of the Kielder pipeline remains to be installed. It will not be put in place unless the untested transfer system has to be activated – and only then as a very last resort. The Kielder supplies are almost inexhaustible. The dam holds ten times as much water as the largest reservoir in Yorkshire.
Elsewhere in Britain the picture is different – and it may well be that this year it is Yorkshire Water who will look on as other water companies struggle to cope with the effects of drought.
Southern Water imposed a hosepipe ban this week on its customers in parts of Sussex. The south has received a little over half of its usual winter rainfall – an indication, according to environmentalists, of the growing effects of global warming.
East Surrey Water restricted use of sprinklers and hosepipes a month ago.
Ten of Britain's 24 private water companies are considering hosepipe bans.
Yorkshire Water however says its reservoirs are 90 per cent full, though one reservoir, Ecup outside Leeds, has been deliberately drained for construction work.
In addition to the improved pipeline grid and the Kielder plan, Yorkshire Water had to tackle its leakage problem. The water watchdog Ofwat set the company annual leakage reduction targets after the 1995 drought. Yorkshire Water says the targets have been met and even exceeded. Leakage today is down from over one-third to about 20 per cent and is still falling. The reduction is sufficient to supply the populations of Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley.
"We are not gloating," said a company spokesman. "And we are not complacent. Far from it. The forecast is for a long, hot, dry summer. Because our reservoirs are at 90 per cent we are in a good position, because since 10 years ago we have done a lot of work on reducing leakage. We have made enormous gains in reducing leakage.
"Two years ago we had a hotter, drier summer than in 1995, but we did not have a 1995 situation. We were able to draw on the experience of 1995 and put into place the ability to move water around the region. In 1995 we had water in places but we could not move it around the region. Now we have the Yorkshire grid."
The Kielder Dam link would be used only in the direst emergency, he said.
"It is there should we need it. But there are environmental issues to think about."
Water brought from Kielder via the Tees and the pipeline would be of a different quality to that in the Dales rivers which would carry it to York.
Sensitive river wildlife, such as crayfish in the Dales rivers, could be jeopardised.
Yorkshire Water hopes its network of pipelines and pumping stations around the county will be enough to cope with any crisis without the Kielder option.
"We have done our bit, customers have done theirs as well – people are more aware, turning taps off when cleaning their teeth, taking showers instead of baths. We would ask people to think about water usage, about not using hosepipes and sprinklers, and installing water butts to collect rainwater for gardens."