Making the case for catchment management

The water industry, perhaps more than any other sector, can be highly impacted by what happens across the catchments in which companies operate. Diffuse water pollution from agriculture, for example, can pollute raw drinking water sources and necessitate costly treatment that uses energy and chemicals, whilst pollutants from multiple sources limit the capacity of waterways to accept discharges from waste water treatment works.

Our freshwater ecosystems require sufficient water to remain healthy, but abstraction for public supply, industry and irrigation for agriculture mean that water scarcity is prevalent in parts of the country, with climate change and population growth likely to exacerbate the problem. A collaborative approach is needed involving all sectors, in order to build resilience and embed a more sustainable approach to managing our water resources.

Water companies are already moving away from the historic focus on managing their own land and infrastructure, as the benefits of influencing management of water across the catchment are increasingly being recognised.

  • Schemes like South West Water’s Upstream Thinking and United Utilities’ (UU) SCaMP have led the way; UU’s scheme saw thousands of hectares of upland habitat restored, drainage channels blocked, and livestock numbers cut, bringing 98% of the SSSIs into favourable condition and realising improvements in water quality through reductions in colour, suspended solids and a reduced risk of cryptosporidium.
  • Severn Trent’s current Environmental Protection Scheme, STEPS, sees landowners being paid based not on what they do on their land, but on the actual water quality benefits delivered.
  • Wessex Water is using ‘reverse auctions’ to allow farmers to bid for funding to establish cover crops, preventing soil runoff over winter and reducing nutrient inputs into the river system, far more cost effectively than could be done by the company through other means.
  • Where Catchment Partnerships have played a role in these schemes; the value of this collaboration is notable (see pg5).

The 2019 Price Review (PR19) presents an opportunity to build upon all of this delivery. The case for catchment management to protect or improve water quality is clear, illustrated by the above examples and many others. The knock-on benefits are also potentially considerable; improved landowner relations and wider land management practices, biodiversity gains and reduced flood risk. The scope to extend catchment management to deliver water resources outcomes is also something that warrants much greater consideration. Many of the natural solutions to addressing flood risk that slow the movement of water through a catchment and reduce rapid runoff also help to augment baseflow in rivers during times of drought. Their low cost and high natural capital delivery compared to built infrastructure projects indicates a potential for much more widespread uptake of such approaches.

These interventions all require engagement with landowners, farmers, fisheries, and communities, making the potential value of Catchment Partnerships in this delivery clear. The Rivers Trusts, Wildlife Trusts, Catchment Sensitive Farming Officers, landowner or fisheries associations and others involved in the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) already have strong relationships with the very people that need to be engaged if such schemes are to be successfully delivered and maintained. The partnerships are also well placed to undertake biodiversity monitoring, scheme promotion and other aspects of delivery that may not be the traditional preserve of water companies.

The value of these partnerships is certainly something that not all companies have fully tapped in to, and PR19 should provide the catalyst for this to change. Indeed, the Catchment Based Approach, established to protect and enhance our water environment, should be increasingly seen by water companies as a key means of protecting the very resources upon which their businesses depend.

Ali Morse
Water Policy & Catchment Technical Specialist, The Wildlife Trusts

and

Rob Collins
Head of Policy and Science, The Rivers Trust