Water from a supply that is used by the public for human consumption, which is not provided by a water company, is likely to fall within scope of the private water supplies regulations1 (the regulations). This includes water that is made available at public waterspouts and water fountains. There can be exceptions, so it is important that the local authority carries out checks for supply ownership and its intended purpose.
Such supplies are often from springs or artesian wells. Sometimes the water is offered for consumption via a local heritage feature, structure, or building, which may be important for tourism. Sometimes, natural outfalls have become public water collection points, that were never intended for this purpose.
Where these supplies exist, local authorities should establish the name and contact details of all relevant persons, including anyone who claims ownership of the supply or maintains or controls its use.
This exercise may highlight crucial issues such as: a lack of ownership, or it may reveal uncertainty or a difference of opinion or understanding between relevant persons and stakeholders with regard responsibilities resulting from changes over a long duration of a supply’s existence. These are civil matters that must be resolved to safeguard those that consume the water.
Local authorities should establish the existence of any written agreements in relation to supplies of this type, including specific acts of parliament dating to their formation, and/or any relevant land or property deeds, and/or covenants.
They should also take account of the interests of any other relevant third-party stakeholders, which might include tourist operators, local councils and parish groups, local history societies, conservators, and trustees.
Where there are no written agreements in place between the relevant persons and stakeholders for the supply, the local authority is advised to encourage their development to provide future clarity on supply ownership and management, as well as accountability for any ongoing costs.
Clarity of this nature is important for three reasons:
(1) to establish the intended purpose of the supply as it is understood by all relevant persons.
(2) to establish who the local authority would serve any notice on, where enforcement to improve the supply is necessary.
(3) to determine where costs need to be apportioned.
In most instances, supplies of this type are intentionally provided for human consumption (for any domestic purpose) and where this has been confirmed, they must be regulated in accordance with regulation 9 of the regulations.
Where they present a potential danger to human health, the installation of appropriate source-to-tap barriers, including suitable treatment where necessary, must be initiated by enforcement in accordance with regulation 18 (20 in Wales). An alternative where this is not feasible, would be to isolate or terminate the supply if it is no longer required or necessary. For example, where historic supplies of this nature are no longer an essential community resource as they were at the time of their installation, prior to the establishment of a public mains network. This option however may be opposed by some stakeholders.
Sometimes water is collected and consumed by the public from natural springs and surface water drain outfalls which were never intended for domestic purposes. Where possible the local authority should endeavour to facilitate their termination, isolation, or diversion, unless the intention for supplying water for domestic purpose has been confirmed.
Whilst provision of signage warning of the risks associated with consuming water from supplies of this nature may be helpful, this does not constitute mitigation. This is because it will not guarantee that the water will not be consumed and potentially cause harm. If the supply cannot be treated or isolated for some reason, restriction of flow should be considered in conjunction with suitable signage as a last resort.
1 = The Private Water Supplies (England) Regulations 2016 (as amended) and The Private Water Supplies (Wales) Regulations 2017