The man who makes sure that Jersey’s water flows
From tackling burst pipes during the cold snap to overseeing contingency plans for water supplies, it has been a busy few weeks for Helier Smith, Jersey Water's chief executive. He spoke to David Edbrooke.
The snowfall earlier this month may have brought much of the Island to a standstill, but for Jersey Water’s engineers it was a case of picking up the pace.
During the freezing weather, the utility business and plumbers were inundated with calls from residents who had either run out of water in their homes or who had discovered leaks.
Although the problem was nowhere near as acute as in the UK, where thousands of homes had their supplies cut off and bottled water had to be delivered to some residents, Mr Smith says the situation in the Island was unprecedented.
‘In the last ten to 15 years since I’ve been at the company this is just about the worst cold period for burst pipes,’ says the 48-year-old.
‘Last Wednesday morning we had over 30 calls – even before the snow arrived – from people with no water due to pipes being frozen. Customer pipe work isn’t our responsibility, so the advice for people is to contact their own plumbers.
‘But in certain circumstances we have to go out and provide assistance. Sometimes there are grey areas if they are not quite sure where the leak is, so in those instances we have a look – our engineers were very busy that day.’
Jersey Water was even forced to raise water production to summer levels.
‘We had to increase the rate at which the works were taking water from the reservoirs by pumping more water from them,’ says Mr Smith, who lives in Grouville with his wife Victoria and their children Alice (11) and Thomas (10).
The average daily demand in Jersey for drinking water during the winter is around 19 megalitres, but last Friday we produced the equivalent of a full summer’s day – about 21 to 23 megalitres.’
That is a considerable amount given that one megalitre is equal to one million litres – about 40 per cent of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
He adds: ‘We also had to fix three burst mains – one in Grouville in Old Forge Lane, another in Colomberie and one in Mont Cochon. Things are pretty much back to normal now across the network.’
It was previously thought that Jersey had lost about six million litres of drinking water during the big freeze, but Mr Smith says it could have been as much as nine million litres – although he insists such an amount is relatively insignificant.
‘The Island probably lost between six and nine million litres of drinking water, but the amount of water lost was very small relative to the amount of water we are pumping out on a weekly or monthly basis, so it’s the sort of thing we can take in our stride.’
To help Jersey Water’s customers take any future bouts of freezing weather in their stride, he suggests they treat their pipes to some TLC.
‘I would advise our customers to take precautionary measures by lagging their pipes to protect their outside pipework from freezing up again. There is advice on our website – jerseywater.je – about how to go about it.’
Last month Queen’s Valley reservoir had to be closed for two weeks as a precautionary measure after a farming chemical used by potato growers polluted one of its feeder streams.
Jersey Water also had to shut Handois reservoir in St Lawrence in January when the level of pesticides in a stream in its catchment area exceeded the regulatory drinking water quality standards. It was reopened last Friday.
Mr Smith says the fact that the Island has two water treatment works and six reservoirs enables Jersey Water to maintain safe levels of drinking water on the odd occasion when farming chemicals do pollute catchment areas.
‘We take water from any combination of our six reservoirs at any time, so although Queen’s Valley was given the all-clear in mid-February and although we could have brought it back into use already, we are currently using water from Grands Vaux reservoir instead. Grands Vaux has our largest catchment area and it’s more cost-effective for us to take water from there when it’s available.’
Specialist equipment to remove farming chemicals from the Island’s water supply is to be installed at Jersey Water’s two treatment works – at Handois this year and Augrès in 2019.
The move comes after residues from oxadixyl – a treatment for blight in potatoes – were detected in treatment works in 2016, 13 years after the chemical was last used in the Island. The amount was so small it presented no risk to health.
Oxadixyl is believed to have lain undiscovered in groundwater sources for many years until Jersey Water switched in January 2016 to a new UK testing laboratory, which routinely checks for the chemical.
And the equipment being installed will enable the application of a new technique using powdered activated carbon to reduce and manage the concentration of oxadixyl.
‘The oxadixyl breach in 2016 was just over our regulatory limit and we haven’t had an oxadixyl breach since.
‘Farmers have put in place some very positive measures and technology to reduce the amount of nitrates and pesticides going into the water. In 2017 we saw significantly fewer breaches of any pesticides in raw water than we did in 2016, and so far this year, despite the closure of two reservoirs, we’ve seen a positive move forward again.’
Forward momentum for motorists along Stopford Road has not been so easy to achieve. Traffic delays have continued in St Helier as work to replace the 92-year-old water main in Stopford Road continues.
The work, which has necessitated the closure of Stopford Road between Rue Le Masurier and David Place, began on 8 January for a period of 12 weeks.
According to Mr Smith, the project is on course to be finished within the specified time frame, but he understands the frustrations motorists are experiencing.
‘The project is on schedule and will be finished at the end of this month. I know it’s a great inconvenience to road users and that it is causing some traffic challenges, but the work is vitally important.
‘Although we are at the site for three months, the pipes we are putting in the ground will hopefully be there for around the next 60 years – it’s short-term pain for long-term gain.
‘The challenge with a lot of works in town is the proximity of our pipes to other services. In the past 92 years, electricity cables, gas pipes, sewers, telephone lines and internet fibre have all been put in place [under the roads] so you have to be very careful to ensure you don’t strike the apparatus of other utilities – it’s a precision job.’
He adds: ‘We are working very closely with the parish of St Helier and the Department for Infrastructure, and we continue to consult with local property and business owners to ensure we minimise the inconvenience to them.
‘We often get feedback from residents that it’s actually a positive experience because generally the traffic outside their homes is much quieter than normal while the work is going on.’
It seems Jersey Water is currently surfing the crest of a wave of goodwill from its customers. Last year it launched its first customer survey in conjunction with the Institute of Customer Service in the UK.
Consumers were invited to take part on the utility company’s website and questions covered topics such as quality and efficiency, ease of doing business and complaint handling.
Mr Smith says the results are now in and he cannot hide his excitement in revealing the high customer satisfaction score for Jersey Water, which is part-owned by the States but operates as a separate entity with its own board.
‘The ICS surveyed around 400 people from our customer base and we have an overall customer satisfaction score of 83.2 per cent – utility companies in the UK generally scored 75 per cent in the customer satisfaction index.
‘We’re very conscious our customers don’t have a choice – we’re the only supplier of water in the Island – so we’re very proud of that score.’