Thames Water has been accused of repeatedly ignoring warnings of supply cuts and burst pipes in Surrey where hundreds of households endured three days without running water at the height of the weekend heatwave.
Residents, including some who were vulnerable, had to queue for bottled water on Saturday in temperatures well above 30C (86F) after a pump failure at the Netley Mills treatment plant.
On Sunday morning, up to 1,000 homes began a third day without water. Supplies were restored to up to 9,000 homes, but many households still complained of low water pressure.
Thames Water apologized and confirmed it was handing out bottled water to residents in Guildford, Surrey Hills, Dorking and Horsham while engineers worked to restore supplies.
Liz Townsend, a Liberal Democrat county councilor for Cranleigh and Ewhurst, called for Thames Water to be fined over the incident and said the company had failed to respond to a number of complaints about previous cuts to supplies.
“We’re absolutely devastated,” she said. “We had a period last summer when there was only bottled water. We didn’t have water in February during the storm, we didn’t have water in the previous warm period at the beginning of July. And now another hot spell, and we have no water.
“Our water infrastructure is not resilient enough to cope with all the new housing and the aging pipes. Every time they increase the pressure in the system, we get more and more outbreaks. I’ve been in talks with Thames Water for 10 years and I’ve been up to Westminster several times to raise it, but nobody notices.”
Townsend wrote to Sarah Bentley, chief executive of Thames Water, in July following an earlier supply disruption. The letter, seen by The Guardian, accused the company of taking months, and in some cases years, to repair burst pipes and said it reneged on a public obligation to provide residents with updates on water supplies.
Bentley has yet to respond.
A statement from Thames Water said: “Netley Mills water treatment works are now back in operation and supplies are gradually being restored to the local network. This will continue for the rest of the day. We are very sorry that customers have been affected, particularly at a time of high temperatures.
“As supplies start to return, we ask customers to try to use this only for essential use initially. This will help us return supplies to everyone faster. We deliver bottled water to customers who we know need extra help. If anyone is unable to travel to a bottled water site, they should contact us on 0800 316 9800 and we will help you.”
Cranleigh is the latest village to run out of water after an official drought was declared in eight areas of England. Dozens of households in Northend, Oxfordshire have been relying on just bottled water for the past five days.
Townsend said: “There was no water on Saturday too [between] 8,000 and 9,000 homes. We have a drip this morning. But between 500 and 1,000 households are still without water.”
Residents were told that problems extracting water from a borehole meant that two local reservoirs were completely empty and a third was only a quarter full.
Townsend said Thames Water’s handling of the crisis had been appalling. She said that some vulnerable people on the priority list were not sent bottled water and that farmers did not have water for livestock.
She added: “There should be financial penalties. If they don’t supply water, people should be reimbursed. We have thousands and thousands of new houses coming into this area and yet the basic water infrastructure cannot cope with the existing number of houses now .”
Townsend also called for the renationalisation of failing water companies.
“It’s such a valuable and diminishing resource that maybe we should look at having a more public ownership model for water,” she said.
Three water companies – Welsh Water, Southern Water and South East Water – have all introduced hose bans, while Yorkshire Water has announced a ban will start on August 26 and Thames Water is planning one in the coming weeks.
A yellow weather warning for extreme heat remained in place on Sunday for large parts of the south, east, west, Midlands and north of England for a fourth day.