Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment has introduced a Bill to protect and develop Scotland’s water resources – the Water Resources (Scotland) Bill.
He says that the new law is designed to ensure that Scotland’s water has a sustainable future helping to boost our low carbon economy and creating jobs.
The Bill aims to build Scotland’s water industry with knowledge and expertise in water management.
It has ambitions to underline the world-wide contribution Scotland might make in areas such as water technology, governance, management and regulation.
A range of measures to ensure Scotland’s water resource is managed efficiently and to the benefit of Scotland, are also included in the Bill.
An expert group, The Hydro Nation Forum, drawn from the water industry and other interested parties, will help shape the delivery of the Hydro Nation programme.
In our view, while lost ground cannot be recovered in terms of what has already been sold, any new reservoirs built for hydro-electricity generation should be seen, owned and managed as part of Scotland’s water resources.
The current separation of water used for power generation and water used for other purposes is unhelpful and creates an economic vulnerability we could do without.
It is also not impossible that new reservoirs built for hydro power – since all modern stations use the pumped return system – might be designed and enabled also to feed water supplies.
The ‘Hydro Nation’ tag Mr Neil is pumping out in relation to this Water Resources Bill cannot be justified if we do not include in that vision of ourselves, our ownership of the water that drives the power we need.
The Cabinet Secretary says that the Bill: ‘…will build on Scottish Water’s success as a public sector organisation ensuring it makes best use of its assets for commercial purposes and accelerates renewable energy development.’
He commits the Scottish Government to: ‘actively support our water industry including our many SME water businesses to develop in both domestic and export markets.’
The issue of exemptions from approval to take water
There are obvious concerns to be explored around Section 7 of the Bill – Exemptions from approval.
This describes the collection and taking of water from Scotland’s water resources (a ‘qualifying abstraction’) which do not require government approval.
Section 7 of the Bill says:
‘A qualifying abstraction is exempt if it is carried out for the sole or principal purpose of—
(a) generating electricity by hydropower,
(b) irrigating agricultural or horticultural land, or
(i) a fish farm, or
(ii) a quarry or a coal or other mine. ‘
The ungoverned ability of owners of existing hydro-electricity reservoirs to collect and draw water from natural sources to add to their reservoirs is a product of an earlier time that requires rethinking today.
There have already been problems with the diversion of burns into a collection system for a power generation plant under a foreign owner.
Equally, the exemption =from approval of drawinfg off water from natural resources to feed fish farms has in some cases caused the failure of small salmon rivers whose flow has been artificially reduced in this way.
The issue here is what is wrong with the requirement to seek approval?
A universal need for approval of the abstraction of water would see any reasonable request granted and the greater public interest protected in appropriate cases that, at the moment, run ungoverned.
There is no defensible reason for any exemptions from approval here except, in some degree, 7 (b) above ‘ ‘irrigating agricultural or horticultural land’.
Clearly in times of climatic distress, shortage of food and threats to animal welfare, farmers and food producers should be able to take what water they need from natural resources. Even then., approval should be the norm. It is quite possible to describe threshold conditions which would trigger the right, without prior approval, to tap into water resources to protect agriculture and horticulture – and limiting ‘horticulture’ in such situations to ‘plants produced for food’.
Issue around approval of water abstraction
In Section 10 ‘Factors as to approval’ the Bill states:
(1) In deciding whether to approve a qualifying abstraction, the Scottish Ministers must
have regard to—
(a) the applicant’s financial position, ‘
The bill does not indicate quite how this factor, at either end of the scale of wealth, would impact upon a decision to approve – or why it should do so.
This obvious requires clarification.
A Bill is only a Bill
Bills are draft legislation to be improved and amended in their passage into law through the correction of flaws in their framing and through political amendments in the parliamentary negotiation process.
But even as a draft, this law has – even at a preliminary and cursory glance – more than enough weaknesses in conception to undermine the grandiloquent statement made in its support by the Cabinet Secretary who launched it.
He declared that: ‘The Bill will underline the world-wide contribution Scotland has to make in areas such as water technology, governance, management and regulation.’
Not in this state it doesn’t and we have only begun to scrutinise it.
Note: Here is the full text of the Bill as presented: Water Resources (Scotland) Bill