Far reaching influence of MaRIUS research into water risks

By Dr Helen Gavin, Project Manager for MaRIUS

Research from the MaRIUS project is widely recognised as having transformed how water risks are managed by the Government, water suppliers and regulators.

MaRIUS (Managing the risks, impacts and uncertainties of droughts and water scarcity) developed the first national-scale water resource model for England and Wales, triggering a transition in government policy and industry practice. Between 2014 and 2020 MaRIUS research involved new theory, the creation of new datasets and models, validation and demonstration in case studies of how the risk of droughts can be assessed and better managed through system modelling and ‘outcomes-based’ approaches to decision making. To date, four major reports have drawn on its work: ‘Water UK Long Term Planning Framework (2016); the National Infrastructure Commission’s ‘Preparing for a drier future, England’s water infrastructure needs’ (2018); the Committee on Climate Change’s CCRA3 Water Availability study (2018-19) and the Environment Agency’s report ‘Meeting our Future Water Needs: A National Framework for Water Resources’ (2020).

Prof Jim Hall, Principal Investigator (PI) of MaRIUS and Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks at the University of Oxford, is a member of the Prime Minister’s Council of Science and Technology and an Expert Advisor to the National Infrastructure Commission. The project was based at the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford.

“Our research has caused a transition in government policy and industry practice for water resource management in England. It has shown how drought risks can be assessed and better managed through system modelling and ‘outcomes-based’ approaches to decision making.

“We have achieved a significant shift in thinking and practice by the regulators, through interaction over eight years with water companies, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Defra and the National Infrastructure Commission.”

Professor Jim Hall, University of Oxford

The increasing frequency of droughts and water scarcity in our warming climate, combined with our growing population and increasing demands for supply present huge challenges for national and local government, water suppliers, energy, agriculture, infrastructure, industry and communities.

MaRIUS’s work has provided conceptual frameworks and methodologies that have enabled government and its agencies to address these challenges and has provided data, systems models and other evidence that are transforming policy and practice. The new water resource system simulation model integrates public water supplies with use of water in agriculture, power generation and other industries. It has been used to explore different future scenarios of drought and assess the frequency, duration and severity of water shortages now and in the future. Tools have been developed to explore trade-offs between different aspects of risk and the cost of alternative management plans.

Key to the take-up of MaRIUS’s research was a series of well-managed and effective workshops where potential users sat down with the leading researchers to explore datasets, models and tools in development, sharing their real-world decision-making and communications processes.

“We are continuing to work very closely with the Environment Agency and Ofwat, at their request. We are undertaking joint resilience assessments and exploring the impacts on water resources. We continue to train Environment Agency staff on our model and will transfer this tool to them as they wish to use it to fulfil their regulatory responsibilities.”

Professor Jim Hall, University of Oxford

Jamie Hannaford, Principal Hydrologist, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Early warning forecasts – a real success story!

“Since September 2018 we have been providing bespoke hydrological forecasts for the Environment Agency’s area teams based on their reasonable worst-case scenarios and stress test scenarios … it is a real success story.”

Jamie Hannaford, Principal Hydrologist, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

A key need addressed by About Drought has been improved access to early warning information, especially for hydrological forecasting. 

Since 2013 a Hydrological Outlook had been provided by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH)the Met Office and BGS, producing a static document that gives a 1-page summary for the UK as a whole, followed by regional and national information. But that did not allow users to access a forecast for the particular river in the UK that they were interested in. 

Under About Drought that has become possible. Our project IMPETUS aimed to improve drought forecasting for decision-makers, building on information gathered at a host of stakeholder workshops to establish current practices and their needs across water supply, health, power, agriculture, navigation and recreation. 

New insight into likely river flows 3 months ahead

It developed a new methodology of forecasting and the follow-on project ENDOWS gave researchers the opportunity to develop IMPETUS’ methods. Now an insight into hydrological conditions over the coming three months, with likely trajectories for flows in 300 rivers around the UK and groundwater levels is available.

Jamie Hannaford, ENDOWS’ Principal Investigator and Principal Hydrologist at UKCEH, says: “The science was done in IMPETUS. We tested the methods, validating them to see how reliable and accurate they are around the country and at different times of the year. 

“Then in ENDOWS we opened up the forecasts and operationalised that system to the extent that these hydrological forecasts are now available in the first few days of every month. 

Since the summer of 2018 we have worked with a very wide range of stakeholders, providing them with forecasts for the river catchments that are relevant and ensuring that they meet user needs. In last summer’s drought conditions when many stakeholders needed reliable information about what would happen next, they have told us that these forecasts were very useful.”

Bespoke forecasts for EA and Yorkshire Water

The forecasts have been provided to a wide range of users, including water companies, the Environment Agency (EA)Natural Resources Wales, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the National Farmers’ Union, energy industry and the Canal & River Trust

Jamie adds: “Since September 2018 we have also been providing bespoke hydrological forecasts for the Environment Agency’s area teams based on their reasonable worst-case scenarios and stress test scenarios. They have been used internally and for National Drought Group briefings – it is a real success story.

“In the dry spell of Summer 2018 we started providing hydrological outlooks to Yorkshire Water who wanted to specifically look at the likelihood of reaching certain flow thresholds for their internal management, and we came up with a bespoke outlook for them. 

“These are just two examples that illustrate the benefit of having the extra ENDOWS knowledge exchange and synthesis funding for the programme. It has enabled the excellent science from IMPETUS to fulfil its potential, it gave researchers the time to hear directly from stakeholders how it could be used, to refine our outputs to make them user-friendly, for example through data visualisation. 

“We listened and as a result they were able to use them to access better information in a live situation in the 2018 drought. Users said they were pleased to see that this project produced such useful information, and that there is a pathway for this science to be continued after ENDOWS, through the Hydrological Outlook.”

Published October 2019

Neil Edwards, Environment & Chemistry Technical Support, RWE Generation UK

Informing the power sector

“There is much to be done and having access to the existing About Drought materials can only better inform the deliberations.”

Neil Edwards, Environment & Chemistry Technical Support, RWE Generation UK

Neil Edwards has represented RWE Generation UK in stakeholder discussions with MaRIUS and DRY, as well as attending conferences and workshops. He believes those connections have enabled About Drought’s outputs to be of greater benefit to the power sector, including building better resilience of services that rely on water-dependent infrastructure. 

He says: “The next few years could be important in how the UK positions itself to deliver resilience of services – such as public water supply, power and food – in a period in which we are going to be economically and institutionally challenged. There is much to be done and having access to the existing About Drought materials can only better inform the deliberations. 

New contacts improved understanding

“I’ve developed useful contacts through networking at the major events and workshops with practitioners that I didn’t have before. The networking and events together, gave me opportunities to contribute to improving the wider understanding of the interaction between power plants and the aquatic environment, which is sometimes not well-represented in academic literature. 

Boost for power sector

“I believe this to be of value to RWE and to the wider power sector. It led to some power sector-focused work being done within the research programme, which has given power sector players a better information base to think through some aspects of water quality in drought and hence, contribute to developing better understanding of resilience issues. 

“I also hope that the forecasting initiative with CEH will lead to improved river flow and seasonal weather forecasting information for relevant power sector locations, which will aid better risk management of commercial positions in low flow events; though this has not advanced as fast as I would have liked.”  

Neil has also been able to draw on access to communications resources. He says: “I have used the softer communications / story telling materials to get an understanding of wider social considerations surrounding major drought events as background in participation in freshwater-related stakeholder activity, such as interaction with DEFRA/EA on water resource management and regional water planning.”

Risk and scenario building

Collaboration with MaRIUS supported RWE’s work on risk to power generation and scenario building. Neil says: “We have used the tailored water quality modelling work to better understand potential risk – this is now factored into our thinking and into our interaction with DEFRA/EA on aspects of resilience. We are aware of the grid-to-grid river flow work and climate change-related work, and we would access it if we felt the need.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019