Shortly after the UK experienced one of its wettest winters on record, a team of academics have warned that climate change could force the country’s power stations to shut down during droughts. Ed Byers from Newcastle University’s School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, said that although the country had been suffering from extreme rainfall and severe flooding, it was only back in 2012 that the UK experienced the driest spring in over a century – following on from two dry winters. Byers and his fellow researchers are warning the government that its current thinking on future energy generation risks is locking the UK into a situation, where water availability could put energy security in danger.

According to Byers: "The UK government is currently looking at policies to decarbonise the electricity sector, including considering a new generation of nuclear power stations, renewables such as hydro, wind and solar, and fossil-fuelled generation with carbon capture and storage. However, policymakers are primarily focusing on issues around security of supply, affordability and emissions reductions. Wider impacts, such as the dependency on water for cooling, are not strongly considered as a barrier to development, let alone a potential vulnerability of our future electricity system. High water consumption could also put other sectors at risk during water shortages."

"The high dependency on water in electricity generation means there is a real possibility that in just a few decades some power stations may be forced to decrease production"

The Newcastle University researcher says that the high dependency on water in electricity generation means there is a real possibility that in just a few decades some power stations may be forced to decrease production or shut down if there are water shortages. "Although this may seem odd given the current weather," he said, "water shortages may be expected with changes in climate and a growing population. Remember, just two years ago Britain was suffering from severe droughts."

“Given the long-term nature of energy infrastructure projects," Byers goes on to comment, "the decisions the government is making now will set the UK on a track that will seal our future, for better or worse. It is vital that policymakers seriously consider the levels of water use across different potential energy pathways, giving credit to those options that reduce carbon emissions while maintaining the UK’s water security and protecting our marine and estuarine environments."

In the research paper published in Global Environmental Change, Byers and his co-authors (Dr Jamie Amezaga, also from Newcastle University, and Professor Jim Hall from the University of Oxford) evaluated the demands for cooling water from the UK electricity sector. They concluded that if the government followed the pathway with high renewables and increased energy efficiency, overall water consumption could decrease by more than 20%, with a reduction of around 60% in freshwater consumption.
Although the academics did not look at the impact of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in this research, they did comment that it would increase the pressure on water supplies even more.

Fracking could put pressure on water supplies

Fracking involves forcing large amounts of water, chemicals and sand into shale rock formations to create fractures in the rock and release gas. According to a recent independent review of shale gas exploitation and its implications on the water environment, the use of water in hydraulic fracking has brought the UK water-energy nexus to the fore. However the report, published by the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) in January 2014, says that it believes some opponents’ claims that the industry represents a threat to the security of public water supplies are "alarmist".

CIWEM’s study followed on from Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement that the government intends to encourage shale gas extraction in the UK. CIWEM states that the volume of water used in hydraulic fracturing, when viewed in isolation, appears large. However, when set in the context of regional or national water supply, it constitutes a very small fraction and compares with other industrial uses.

"To meet 10% of UK gas demand from shale gas over 20 years would require 1.2-1.6Mm3 of water per year."

Estimates show that to meet 10% of UK gas demand from shale gas over 20 years would require 1.2-1.6Mm3 of water per year. Although this may sound a large amount, when compared with the volume of water that is licensed to be taken from the environment each year in England and Wales, it equates to less than 1/10th of one per cent of total abstraction.

However, CIWEM warns that should an industry become established in the 2020s when there will be greater pressures on the water environment, there could be local issues with water sourcing; especially in the water stressed South East region of England.

Indeed one of the biggest pressures on water resources is projected population growth. By the 2030s estimates suggest that England will grow by 9.2M people, with 0.4M more in Wales. This will not be distributed evenly throughout the country, CIWEM warns, with London, the East and East Midlands projected to grow at a faster rate than the rest of the country. Overall water demands are likely to increase and some scenarios suggest that this could be by 5% by 2020, and even 35% by 2050.
“Climate change is likely to alter the water cycle significantly in the future," the CIWEM report added. Further pressure is likely to be put on the water stressed South East region as "a reduction of 40% in summer rainfall by the end of the century may occur", along with changes in the frequency of drought conditions.

Although current water abstraction licences take into account population growth and climate change to protect the environment in England and Wales, CIWEM says that existing licences granted decades ago may not provide the level of protection that is required today. As a result the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture and the Environment Agency (EA) are currently looking at reforming the abstraction system to consider alternative options for water allocation while protecting future environmental flows.

“This means there may be fewer licences or volumes per licence available from 2020 which could affect shale gas operators," the CIWEM report warns. "Many of the locations of onshore licences on the Weald in the South East of England coincide with areas that are already over-abstracted and where fewer resources will be available in the future. Recent estimates based on Environmental Flow Indicators for each water company in the south east suggested that the total target of sustainability reductions could be as much as 50% higher than original estimates from the Environment Agency. This is a considerable challenge to the companies who must also deal with increased demand and the pressures of climate change."

The report says that essentially it will be for the water company or the EA (depending on where the water is sourced) to determine if there is enough to go round. Where there are water stressed catchments however, operators will need to be aware of the risk that there may be smaller volumes available in the future.

“Whilst it may be too simplistic to suggest that the shale gas industry will be allowed to over exploit water resources;" CIWEM adds, "this is not to say there are not risks. Early engagement and planning with the Environment Agency or local water company, depending on where the water is sourced, will be important to ascertain the volumes required and also those to be treated."

A Memorandum of Understanding has been signed by the United Kingdom Onshore Operators Group and Water UK to look at the effect of the shale gas industry on the short and long term demand for water at specific locations. CIWEM is said to be fully supportive of such an approach and believes it should benefit all parties in planning water resources for the future.

California crisis

Water resources have also been a cause for concern across the US state of California since the early part of 2014. In January 60% of the state was classified as being in a condition of extreme drought – the second worst category in the US drought monitor index. According to the US Energy Information Administration, as of 5 February, the water supply at nearly every major water gauge in the states of California and Nevada were less than half of the average seasonal norms. Several dry years have now left California dealing with a low water supply. Drought relief proposals have been passed by Governor Jerry Brown, with President Obama pledging millions of dollars in aid.

On 21 February, Timothy Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) commented on the statement issued by the US Bureau of Reclamation regarding the worst-ever water supply forecast for the Central Valley Project (CVP). Agricultural customers of the CVP stood to receive a zero percent allocation, while contractors whose water supply is based on very senior water rights are being allocated just 40% of their contract supply.

“Today’s announcement is the latest in a string of developments illustrating the unprecedented drought conditions gripping California. For the first time, growers with water rights dating back to the 1880s are facing significant cuts, while other contractors must brace for the likelihood of receiving no water from the CVP this year.

“While this news had been anticipated," Quinn said, "it still rings alarm bells for key regions of the state that produce nearly half of the nation’s fruits and vegetables. It’s truly a reminder that we need urgent action this year to address the severe impacts this will have on local economies. It will take leadership and a sustained partnership among local, state and federal agencies to face the challenges of this drought. Even as we work together to manage the crisis this year, we also must advance a comprehensive plan to improve water supply reliability state-wide and combat future droughts."

In addition Senator Fran Pavley, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee, outlined priorities for responding to drought conditions and creating more reliable water supplies in California. She believes that measures could include restrictions on the use of potable water for hydraulic fracturing.

"The idea of restricting water supplies for fracking has led to much heated discussion in California."

The idea of restricting water supplies for fracking has led to much heated discussion in California. A recent report by CERES showed that 96% of fracking wells in the state are located in areas experiencing drought conditions and increased water stress, while a group of Californian farmers have called upon Governor Brown to place a moratorium on fracking for oil and gas extraction. The band of 145 farmers said that they need the scarce water resources to grow food and feed people and that it shouldn’t be "wasted" in an extraction process. They also believe that in the short term fracking makes competition for California’s water even "more fierce" and could have a significant negative effect on farmers, ranchers and vintners.

A negative association between water resources and fracking was also made by a 2011 study published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Author Ben Parfitt claimed that the ballooning shale gas industry in the Canadian province of British Columbia was placing "water and hydro resources at risk" as well as "jeopardising climate change policies".

Parfitt believes that if the shale gas industry expands as projected "large amounts of publically owned clean water and hydropower will have to be found to produce more and more dirty fossil fuel".

“It’s time to curb this industry before it’s too late for our climate, our weather and our hydroelectric resources," says Tria Donaldson, Pacific Coast Campaigner for environmental organisation the Wilderness Committee. "We want firm no-go zones established where industry activities are restricted and we want a moratorium on fracking in undeveloped watersheds, pending full surface water and groundwater studies."

Impact of fracking on dam safety

Further studies are also being carried out by the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) in the US. They are currently assessing the potential impact and risks associated with hydro fracturing on dam and levee safety. USACE owns and operates 649 dams and protects 15M people across the states. It also has oversight of approximately 10% of the nation’s levees – equating to almost 23,300km of levees which protect 10M people and prevented US$120B of flood damage in 2011.

Anita Branch is a senior geotechnical engineer with USACE at the Dam Safety Protection Centre in Tulsa. She explains that potential failure modes associated with fracking include poorly controlled hydro fracturing (known as breakouts). This can cause erosion of embankments along existing faults located in the foundation, abutment or outlet works and could lead to project failure, ie an uncontrolled loss of pool or flood storage. In addition there is also the risk of induced seismicity and the potential for contamination of ground and surface water when disposing of flowback water. Other concerns are that the process’ water demands could also affect:

  • Water quality/storage/supply.
  • Navigation.
  • Low flow augmentation.
  • Environmental restoration.
  • Fish and wildlife enhancement.
  • Recreation.
  • Regulatory permitting.

Branch adds that dams and levees are often many miles long with lots of different geology over their footprint. Mitigating for the impacts of hydro fracturing was not incorporated into original project designs, she cautioned. Furthermore, as wells can be fractured multiple times, project risks associated with fracking can occur over the lifetime of the well.

Water-energy nexus

Sustainable and efficient management are key words to consider when discussing the future for fracking. As the process gets underway in the UK, lessons can be learnt from concerns and experience gained across the Atlantic with regards to safety and the water-energy nexus.

As Ed Byers from Newcastle University in the UK concludes: "There needs to be better regional co-ordination of energy infrastructure development and water resources, to help ensure that sufficient water resources are available to all sectors, and that they are used in the most efficient ways possible."


Electricity Generation and Cooling Water Use: UK Pathways to 2050. Edward A. Byers, Jim W. Hall & Jaime M. Amezaga. Global Environmental Change.

Fracking Up Our Water, Hydro Power and Climate: BC’s Reckless Pursuit of Shale Gas. By Ben Parfitt November 2011. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives and the Wilderness Committee.

Hydraulic Fracturing & Water Stress: Water Demand by the Numbers. A Shareholder, Lender & Operator Guide to Water Sourcing February 2014. A Ceres Report Authored by Monika Freyman.

Shale Gas and Water. An independent review of shale gas exploration and exploitation in the UK with a particular focus on the implications for the water environment. The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM). January 2014. Laura Grant, Policy Adviser & Alastair Chisholm, Policy Manager