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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 June 2006, 19:21 GMT 20:21 UK
Water firms 'harming' environment
Spouting water
Water abstraction is damaging wildlife sites
While water shortages continue, water companies have been recording big profits.

File on 4 asks whether regulator Ofwat is doing enough to prevent these monopoly companies from damaging the environment and overcharging customers.

The programme learns that three firms are under investigation over allegations of giving false information to Ofwat - the kind data used to determine charges.

Severn Trent Water, for example, has also faced a probe by the Serious Fraud Office for allegedly exaggerating the level of leakages on its network of pipes.

Ofwat has also been looking into other figures supplied by the company - which can play a key role in prices charged to customers.

In March, Ofwat ruled the company had provided data that had been "deliberately miscalculated" meaning customers had been overcharged. The firm was ordered to repay 42m to customers.

Signs of stress

The programme learns that some water companies are being blamed for causing environmental damage by taking too much water from rivers and bore-holes.

I think the rate of abstraction is far too much for what it will stand
Greg Ellis
estate manager, Godmersham Park, Kent

Greg Ellis, an estate manager at Godmersham Park in Kent, says the Great Stour running through the parkland is showing signs of stress.

"I think the rate of abstraction is far too much for what it will stand," he says.

His views are supported by the Campaign to Protect Rural England, which has its own expert on Kent's water resources.

Graham Warren says groundwater resources are being drained, as water companies abstract greater quantities from boreholes.

The regional water firm, Southern Water, is reviewing the quantities it takes from boreholes.

But it says it is not aware of any long term decline in flows on the Great Stour. The firms says its main problem has been two very dry winters in a row.

Wildlife impact

The Environment Agency says it is concerned about the amount of water being pumped by the companies at hundreds of points.

Conservation groups tell File on 4 that abstraction by water companies is impacting on many of Britain's best wildlife sites.

Philip Burston, of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, believes hundreds of sites are affected - some 130 of them are designated as sites of international importance.

There is also a risk that Britain could be heavily fined for being in breach of EU environmental regulations.

The government hopes Ofwat's new powers to impose stiff penalties will put a stop to the fiddling of figures or cheating of customers.

But the likelihood of the regulators delivering a rapid solution to the problem of overstretched water supplies, symptomised by damaged wildlife sites, is not encouraging.

File on 4: BBC Radio 4, Tuesday 27 June at 2000 BST, and repeated on Sunday 2 July at 1700 BST. Or listen online - see links on the right hand side of this page.

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