On 8 November I attended the UK Drinking Water Quality conference in Birmingham. As a relative outsider I would like to share some observations. This conference is one of the few occasions where people from different UK water companies have the opportunity to interact and learn from each other. However, I noticed that during breaks people flocked together with their colleagues from their own water company, and did not particularly interact with new people. The presentations to me seemed to be much more focussed on public relations than on actually sharing experiences and learning from each other. I did not feel people were being open and honest about the things that they learned, things that did not go right, or that they have not yet solved. Many speakers addressed the need for more collaboration, acknowledging that everybody says that we need to do it, but then don’t actually go and do it. It seems to be so simple, yet it is not common practice. A solution for this was not brought to the table. I think that the fact that the UK water companies are private and heavily regulated does not encourage cooperation and openness.
A topic on the side was the effect of the Brexit. This could take various forms, related to politics, environmental regulation, water quality or work force. After the Brexit environmental regulations will probably be changed to fit more specifically with the UK situation. The uncertainty of what will be changed and when, means that some investments (mainly in catchment areas) may be postponed, while others see opportunities of doing things a little bit differently. There was a focus on reducing metaldehyde in catchment areas by cooperating with farmers. Another interesting topic was skills where Ken Black from Northumbrian Water Group showed how the principles of LEAN were successfully applied in the water company. The key really seems to be to empower people, rely on the professional expertise of everyone including the field workers to add value to the process without having to be accountable for everything they do. A third topic that I found interesting was the question of sustainable water quality. There are still connections pipes on the customers’ premises and in the installation that are lead. Water companies have been dosing phosphate for more than 30 years to minimize the negative health effects of the lead pipes. However, they do not feel this is a sustainable way of dealing with the issue. Some feel that water utilities should take up the responsibility of replacing the lead pipes, even at the customer sites; others feel that it is not their concern.