Welcome New Farming Rules for Water

Earlier this month the Government published a set of farming rules for water, establishing a mandatory baseline of good practice that land managers across England must follow. These focus on planning farm operations to reduce the risk of water pollution, conserve soils and promote the most efficient use of nutrients. The rules make sense and are a welcome step that has been some time coming.

Tackling nutrient pollution and soil loss is one of the biggest challenges we face in improving the state of the environment in the UK. Across England and Wales, 2.9 million tonnes of soil are lost from fields every year. Nutrient pollution kills fish and other aquatic animals and can drive a change from plant communities dominated by flowering plants to ones dominated by algae. Ultimately this can lead to toxic algal blooms and pose a risk to the health of humans and animals that come into contact with polluted water. Other sectors, especially waste water treatment, contribute to the problem but across the UK agriculture is responsible for 50% of total nitrogen losses, 25% of phosphorus and 75% of sediment. For predominantly rural catchments, these proportions are much greater.

There is no doubt that there is an urgent need for action, but if the new rules are to play their part in reducing pollution from farming, we need clarity on three things:

  1. what guidance will be available? Farmers must have confidence that their practice is complying and know where they can go for advice
  2. how will these rules help? People need to know what contribution these rules are expected to make to the recovery of waters and, where compliance with these will not be enough, what other combination of regulation and incentive will be applied
  3. how will compliance be ensured? The Environment Agency does not have the resources to monitor and enforce these rules at present

The majority of farmers will already be meeting the requirements set out in the new rules and will not need to make any changes to their operation, as the rules do not raise the bar above what is already required by Cross Compliance under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

They aim to set a fair baseline of practice for everyone so that nobody can seek to gain an advantage by taking risks and imposing some or all of the cost of that risk on others. These rules are also helpful in setting out the expectations of minimum performance for the sector; an essential prerequisite to thinking about what a future system of payments for public goods might look like post-Brexit.

It is not clear how the Environment Agency intends to ensure compliance. This will require clear guidance from Government to ensure that farmers are provided with support and guidance, especially in relation to those rules that expect farmers to take ‘reasonable precautions’ without setting out explicitly what they are. Support for initiatives such as Catchment Sensitive Farming and the Catchment Based Approach will also be essential in providing trusted advice and support.

It is critical that the rules are properly enforced but far from clear that the Environment Agency has the resources to do it. The risk of soil erosion is greatest in the autumn and winter, when soils are most likely to be exposed and rainfall is highest, so inspections designed to identify problems must target that period. Many respondents to the previous consultation raised understandable concerns about privacy if monitoring was done remotely without landowner consent, but there must be a role for technology in identifying problem areas and targeting effort. Detail about how the Environment Agency will achieve adequate compliance monitoring is urgently needed.

These rules will not be enough on their own to drive the recovery of our water environment. The accompanying policy paper states that they ‘fulfil obligations under the Water Framework Directive (WFD)’ but this is a bit misleading. The WFD requires Member States to have controls in place to limit diffuse pollution and there were no such controls in place in England outside Nitrate Vulnerable Zones. However, the overriding obligation arising from the WFD is to enable water bodies to achieve good ecological status and we will still be a long way from achieving that. For example, to meet the targets of the last round of River Basin Management Plans, it was calculated that phosphorus losses due to agriculture needed to be reduced by 28-43%. By contrast, when these new rules were consulted on in 2015, they suggested only a 2.4% reduction in phosphorus. While the published rules might be better than those consulted on, there is still a significant gap. Setting out a road map for closing that gap will be a key challenge for the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment.

The new rules are a welcome first step but there is much still to do if we are to see the recovery we need in our rivers and wetlands.

Simon Wightman
Water Policy Officer, RSPB

If you can’t measure it, how can you manage it?

Fundamental change is needed to the way in which the Environment Agency (EA) monitors and investigates the environment. Far too much data is recorded for no clear reason, with much of this never actually analysed or of insufficient quality to inform managers of the causes of problems. Furthermore, copious amounts of high quality data collected by other organisations are not currently used by the EA.

But, without effective measuring, you can’t manage our environment correctly. There are of course exceptions to this rule (as with most rules), but to manage water effectively it is generally essential to have high quality information on which to base your decisions. Is a river getting cleaner or more polluted? Where and when is pollution getting into the river or its tributaries? What is the principal source of the pollution? Unfortunately, for many rivers in England and Wales, we don’t have this basic information, or what we have is misleading.

The Angling Trust & Fish Legal have, for the last six years or so, been challenging the Environment Agency to address shortcomings in the way that it monitors and investigates river water quality, which is vitally important to our member angling clubs, fisheries and individual anglers, as well as being essential for protecting wildlife associated with watercourses. We believe that the current methodology is failing to identify problems with pollution on rivers due to its reliance on spot samples taken every few months, predominantly in dry weather and during the day. These samples will often fail to pick up spikes in pollution due to wet weather, or dips in dissolved oxygen at night, as the graph below shows. This is likely to have led to rivers being incorrectly classified, and failures to investigate and stop sources of pollution.

Figure 1. Diurnal Variation of Ammonia Concentration in Sewage Effluent.

It’s important to monitor night time quality, because it will be the first indication of impending problems, as an early warning system for identifying Sewage Treatment Works (STWs) where performance is beginning to decline.

Figure 2 below shows the ammonia concentration for two sets of samples at the River Eden at Sheepmount, taken in 2014. Even though spot samples were taken at a higher frequency than normal (weekly rather than monthly), it can be seen that they still completely failed to detect the higher ammonia values that occurred during wet weather. It is unlikely that the high levels of ammonia would ever have been detected by routine spot samples.

Figure 2. Ammonia concentration for two sample sets at River Eden in 2014.

The failure of the current system is really important because action to address the problems can only be justified if there is clear evidence. With more of our rivers failing to meet “good ecological status” than 10 years ago, we need to break this cycle of producing expensive action plans that don’t lead to any action being taken because there isn’t enough information to justify regulating industry and agriculture or investing money.

The Agency responded to our challenge three years ago by launching a Strategic Monitoring Review. Its brief was to look afresh at the EA’s £70 – £80 million water monitoring programme, to see if it was fit for purpose and better integrate it with organisations like the river trusts, who hold vast quantities of data about water. We were delighted with this response and excited by the possibilities it offered. We were shown a presentation which included a collaborative process with external organisations, and a 12 – 18 month timetable for completion of the review.

Since then, we have frequently asked for updates on progress with the review, but without much luck. The manager leading the initiative moved off into another job and the promised meetings with other organisations in the sector were never held. This week, The Angling Trust met the relevant team and the signs were encouraging that the review is back on track, albeit about 2 years late.

This must be a collaborative process with the voluntary sector if the review objectives are to have any chance of being achieved. There is a danger that this could otherwise become simply a cost-cutting exercise.

Monitoring and investigations should be designed to make it possible for the Agency to take action to improve the environment. The EA could also save money by commissioning others to carry out monitoring at a fraction of the cost and with match funding support. Such fundamental change will need strong leadership from the top, otherwise the Agency will waste yet more precious public money and continue failing to stop the widespread ecological declines on our rivers and lakes.

Mark Lloyd
Chief Executive, Angling Trust & Fish Legal

Making a Great 25 Year Plan for the Environment

The Government is in full swing drafting a 25 Year Plan for the environment (again). If done properly, with legally binding targets and milestones, we have the potential for the most ambitious but deliverable opportunity for the environment we’ve had in many years. Environmental NGOs have been working together to try and ensure the plan fully delivers for nature.

From a water, aquatic, fish splashing, frogs croaking, otters swimming perspective we are seeking commitment to improving protection and management of the aquatic environment.

This includes:

Ambition – we welcome that salmon are once again swimming up rivers where they have been absent for years, but there is still a long way to go. Less than 20% of our rivers, lakes and groundwaters are at good ecological status. River basin management plans take us some way to improving the quality of our water bodies but we must not rely on them as the sole answer to water quality. The timeline for those plans goes up to 2027 and this is a 25 Year Plan. Let’s build on the plans, and set ambitious targets for water quality into the future. Let’s face the issue of diffuse pollution. Simple changes to planning and land management could have significant benefits and reduce the costs to society of water treatment, flooding and loss of biodiversity.

Monitoring – we are concerned about the potential severity of cuts to environmental monitoring and hence the ability to identify problems, implement solutions and ensure that the polluter pays. Long-term monitoring is important to understanding change. Government bodies  need data to make informed decisions, and this data collection requires resources and expertise. Environmental monitoring underpins good investment and apportionment of costs. There should also be a framework to enable the agencies to utilise third party data much more easily.

Integration and multiple benefits – funding often considers individual projects for too much water, too little water and water quality. Yet how we manage water using natural processes can do much more holistically. Re-meandering not only slows water down which reduces flooding, it can also locally increase low flows up to 15% [1]. Similarly, sustainable drainage systems can reduce surface water run-off and improve water quality and biodiversity as well as provide societal benefits; wetlands can be created which remove chemicals and sediment from water before it reaches a water course whilst also providing biodiversity benefit and slowing water down.

Let’s start thinking about managing water, rather than managing floods or drought or chemicals. Funding needs to incentivise delivery of multiple benefits from the inception of a project. It just doesn’t work if bolted on as an afterthought to tick a box. Strong regulation, incentives, new markets and new ways of working are all required. 

Natural Capital Accounting – we welcome a natural capital approach but alongside the following stipulations. There is a need to protect the environment because it is the right thing to do. Biodiversity loss is one of our biggest problems and one of the hardest things to monetise, but arguably the most important area to stop loss, protect and enhance. Assigning a monetary value is not always possible and sometimes we should protect the environment even if the pound signs do not add up. We also have to be careful that in putting monetary values on environmental services we do not bias investment towards easy wins, such as flood mitigation and carbon storage. The 25 Year Plan should include a set of biodiversity indicators and targets, separate from natural capital objectives.

Catchment based approach – we need to take a catchment based approach for integrated water management, from source to sea. Adequate monitoring is crucial to identify issues in catchments and understand where the most beneficial interventions will be. Opportunity mapping could help identify not only the issues in a catchment, but also how measures might act upon each other and who might benefit.

The plan needs to apply across Government. Without commitment from other departments such as Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government, DEFRA cannot achieve the Government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state than it found it, even with the most ambitious plan.

The Government have promised that the 25 Year Plan will be a living document, but let’s make it as good as it can be from the start. We’ve been sharing our thoughts with Government and now there’s the opportunity for you too. Every day in Parliament, nature’s needs are drowned out by other louder voices. Now, with the future of our environment laws at stake, it’s #TimeToBeHeard. Please take the time to email your MP.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/blueprint/pdf/EUR25551EN_JRC_Blueprint_NWRM.pdf

Microplastics research finds more than half of those released remain on land

Although plastics in the marine environment have received worldwide attention, it is estimated that more than half of microplastics released remain on land. This happens when wastewater sewage sludge is applied to soil, and when particulates are washed from road surfaces. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the microplastic problem; once released into the environment there are few, if any, practicable means by which these pollutants can be removed. As many microplastics are produced from the degradation of larger items, we should be looking further upstream for both pollution and its prevention.

Whilst the damage to the marine environment should not be overlooked, we must equally focus our attention to impacts that microplastics could have on freshwater and terrestrial environments. They have the potential to accumulate in these environments, impacting upon nature and the human food chain, as well as providing a platform for pathogens.

Microplastics can be any particles smaller than 5mm, including microscopic particles. They form from the weathering and breakdown of larger plastics, or are released intentionally or unintentionally in the form of manufactured beads, granules and fibres. Most microplastics have been found to arise from the washing of synthetic textiles and from the breakdown of plastic road markings and tyres from driving. Once released into the environment, they can then be transported via the wind, through surface waters and sewers, and by rivers.

At CIWEM, our new report has reviewed the latest evidence on microplastic removal processes at water and wastewater treatment plants. We found that wastewater treatment processes could reduce microplastics from 97-99%. Whilst this sounds promising, the large volumes of wastewater processed each day means that millions of microplastics are still being released back into the freshwater environment.

The high proportion of particles that are removed at wastewater treatment works become trapped in sewage sludge. These can then be transferred back into the environment when sewage sludge is spread on land to provide the nutrients needed for agriculture. EU legislation requires sludge to be treated to protect against health hazards, for example by lime stabilisation, anaerobic digestion, composting or thermal drying, but there is limited evidence of these being able to remove microplastics and no current specific regulation.

Data on the environmental and health impacts of microplastics on land are sparse. Our report calls for much greater research into the impacts associated with the application of sewage sludge containing microplastics to farmland.

The Government has recently published draft legislation that will ban the sale of products that include microbeads in ‘wash off’ personal care products by January, and ban their manufacture by June 2018. Whilst this is a welcome ‘upstream’ intervention, these are a minor contributor to the overall problem – it is estimated that these make up just 0.01 to 4.1% of plastics in the marine environment.

Every-day disposable items, such as plastic bottles and coffee cups, are particularly problematic. Only around half of the 35 million plastic bottles sold in Britain every day are currently collected for recycling. Moreover, around 7 million cardboard coffee cups are thrown away each day, many with a single use plastic lid. Only 1 in 400 cups are recycled, leaving over 6.98 million for landfill, or ending up in the environment.

To tackle this growing mountain of waste, our report calls for the Government to implement a new plastics strategy to improve product design and substitution, extend producer responsibility and support plastic bottle deposit return schemes.

Laura Grant, Senior Policy Adviser
CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management)

CIWEM’s report ‘Addicted to Plastic’ and a policy position statement ‘Microplastic pollution’ can be found at www.ciwem.org/waste-resources.

#binit4beaches to keep our bathing waters clean

This summer, organisations across the UK – charities including Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and Keep Britain Tidy, water companies, the Environment Agency, Local Authorities and beach managers – have all come come together as part of the #binit4beaches campaign, to highlight the importance of only flushing the 3P’s –  pee, poo and paper –  and always putting wet wipes in the bin.

With sandy coves, sweeping bays and towering clifftops, the UK coastline is as beautiful and unique as anywhere in the world – and with nowhere more than 70 miles from the coast, it should come as no surprise that over 14 million trips are made to our beaches each year (VisitBritain, 2015).

Spending time at the coast is good for our health and wellbeing. In the UK over 600 beaches have been recognised for the importance they play in outdoor recreation and are designated as bathing waters. Each summer, the water at these beaches is sampled and tests are done, sometimes weekly, to look for signs of pollution from sewage, run-off from farmland or even for too much poo from dogs, birds or donkeys.

Any beach which fails these tests, taken over a period of four years, must display a sign at the beach entrance advising visitors not to swim. Investigations will be done to find out where the pollution is coming from and an action plan put in place to stop it reaching the beach in the future. At beaches where pollution can be temporarily increased – due to heavy rainfall – daily forecasts are provided by the Environment Agency, and the local authority or beach owner updates signs at the beach each day. All of this work is done to ensure that people heading to the beach can enjoy a dip in the sea.

Visitors are often unaware that all this work is happening in the background to look after our beaches – but it doesn’t mean that we can’t all do our part to help make sure that they stay clean. Something as simple as remembering what you can, and can’t, flush down your toilet can really make a difference.

Wet wipes are considered essential to many people; helping clean up anything from dirty nappies to grubby faces. But, if they get flushed down the toilet they can block drains and pipes, increasing the chance of sewers overflowing during heavy rainfall and flooding.

This means that some of those wipes that were flushed down the toilet can end up in our rivers and seas and on our beaches – the MCS annual beach litter survey shows that the number of wet wipes found on UK beaches has increased by almost 700% over the last decade.

“But my wet wipe says flushable on it?”

Unfortunately, not everything does what it says on the packet. Water companies have a standard for what can be flushed safely down the toilet and wet wipes labelled as ‘flushable’ aren’t passing it, because they don’t break down quick enough once they’ve been flushed.

Over the last 12 months MCS, water companies and other organisations have been working together to improve the labelling on wet wipes and ensure that everyone knows that all wet wipes should be disposed of in the bin. This is in conjunction with the Blueprint for PR19 campaign, which includes stopping pollution as a key ask for water companies.

#binit4beaches in your home and help reduce wet wipes reaching our rivers, seas and beaches.

Rachel Wyatt
Water Quality Programme Manager, Marine Conservation Society

Hell or High Water – Tackling flooding and drought together with nature

Catastrophic floods caused millions of pounds of damage and turned people’s lives upside down in summer ten years ago. Government has done a lot since then, but flooding continues to devastate our country.

This year, despite a relatively dry start, the summer has still seen flash flooding events. So, why do we still throw our arms up in disarray and throw money after a flood event, rather than invest properly in protection? Why aren’t we better prepared when we know the problem will recur? People still cry out ‘I didn’t think it would happen to me’, but if we look at the geographic distribution of the last ten years of floods, we see it can happen anywhere:

We had flooding in 2008 in Wales and the North East, flooding in Cornwall in 2010, flooding in Southern England in the winter of 2013 (despite the dry period from 2010-2012), severe floods in winter 2015 in Cumbria and, more recently, flooding in the South West in 2016.

We have destroyed our local environment’s ability to cope with rainfall. You can build all the hard defences you like, but it will always push water elsewhere. Allowing nature to slow the water down and soak it up from the source to the sea helps to reduce the amount of water filling and over filling our drains and rivers.

What about earlier this year when people were worried about too little water and hoping for rain? If our flood defences, rivers and drainage systems weren’t managed to get rid of water as quickly as possible and instead allowed water to move more slowly and percolate through soil, we would be able to rely less on irrigation and our groundwater would be more resilient to drier winters.

It makes sense to invest in natural interventions that improve flood resilience and water storage at the same time. Unfortunately, money is spent either on water resources or on flooding, not on both, and not enough work has been done on trials and evidence for integrated management.

There are a number of opportunities coming up where this can change.

  • Water companies are producing their business plans and could propose to investigate the impact of measures to mitigate flooding on water resource resilience. As water companies now have a duty towards company and environmental resilience, this surely makes sense as a win-win?
  • DEFRA is spending £15 million on natural flood management schemes, but has not allocated any money for monitoring. These schemes need to be monitored, not just for one year or three, but long-term to highlight the multiple benefits they provide, such as environmental resilience to dry weather events and water resources resilience.
  • DEFRA’s 25 year environment plan has the potential to not only help the environment adapt in the face of climate change, but to help our communities adapt by creating, enhancing, protecting and restoring our natural spaces, and clearly recognising the benefits that the environment brings us.

So, the Government and public utilities have a big role to play preventing future flooding. In the meantime, your community can make a difference in your area: better soil management in agriculture, local tree planting, house protection measures, sustainable drainage systems. They’re our homes and businesses, and we can work with nature to help protect them. So, let’s face the music and go dance in the rain.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

Where have the rivers gone?

River beds are dry, wildlife is suffering, but no one has come close to mentioning a drought. What’s going on?

Is this a footpath meandering under an old bridge?  I’m afraid not. It’s actually a river: the River Quin in Hertfordshire in spring this year.  And plenty of other rivers, particularly in the south and east of England, have looked like this for periods this spring and early summer: the River Rib in Hertfordshire, the Chess in Buckinghamshire, the River Colne in London and many more.

Is this what you expect your local river to look like under normal conditions?

It’s true that parts of the country haven’t seen much rain, despite some heavy downpours. Indeed, 2016/2017 was a particularly dry winter and if the dry weather continues into the autumn, we may find ourselves on the cusp of an official drought in the south east.  But right now water is coming out of my taps just fine and I’ve not heard any mention of a hosepipe ban. I wonder what the fish in the River Quin think about that? Perhaps they should move to my local paddling pool?

Dry spells and drought are likely to become more frequent because of climate change, but, before we blame everything on the weather and climate change, I want to highlight the underlying problem. In many parts of the country we’re pumping more water out of our rivers than can be naturally replenished, in many cases we’re using water wastefully and national regulations around water use are insufficient to stop our rivers drying up.

WWF’s recent report, Water for Wildlife: tackling drought and unsustainable abstraction, brings attention to this crisis: the scale of over-abstraction from rivers, how the current approach to preventing damage by abstraction is taking too long, how wildlife is suffering, and how many people are concerned by the current state of affairs.

  • 24% of rivers in England are at risk from too much water being abstracted.
  • Low river flows affect the whole river ecosystem, from the smallest bug to the biggest fish.
  • At the current rate of progress, it could be 2050 before today’s damage is addressed.
  • 68% of people are worried about the impact on the environment of taking too much water from rivers.
  • Over 80% of people agree the Government should do more to encourage homes and businesses to be more water efficient.

Rivers aren’t just important for wildlife, they’re also important to people – to us. They help us connect to the natural world: we like to walk and picnic by rivers, let our children paddle and our dogs swim in rivers, and use rivers for fishing and boating. Thriving, flowing rivers also bring many economic benefits.

We must restore our rivers before it is too late. As well as working with our colleagues in Blueprint and supporting the Blueprint for PR19 campaign, at WWF we’re calling on the Government to urgently address how we’re managing water, and for water companies to think about alternative ways of meeting water needs in their 2020-2025 business plans.  Specifically, we’re asking for:

  • A national strategy to cut water waste to include engaging the public about the value of water, making every home and business water efficient, and making paying for water fairer through universal water metering
  • A revised process for dealing with abstraction licences that are already causing damage to habitats and wildlife. This would include support for water companies and other abstractors, such as farmers and businesses, to enable them to cope with potential reductions in the amount of water they’re able to abstract from rivers
  • Environmental limits on all water abstractions, to ensure there is enough water for wildlife in every river, and a mechanism to manage how reductions in abstraction are managed and shared across river catchment areas
  • Important European Legislation that protects rivers, such as the Water Framework Directive, to be fully transposed after Brexit.

The need for these changes have long been recognised by the Government: their 2011 Water White Paper, Water for Life, promised new legislation to address over-abstraction; and the 2013 paper, Making the Most of Every Drop, set out the Government’s abstraction reform proposals.

But, Brexit has put pressure on parliamentary time, and these urgent reforms seem to have been kicked into the long grass. We strongly urge the new government to reconsider and push water management up the agenda, and for water companies to set out how they will sustainably manage abstraction in their next round of business plans – before we stumble across more lost rivers.

Catherine Moncrieff
Freshwater Programme and Policy Manager, WWF-UK

We need to protect the environment for future generations

One of the main things I’m taking away from the election result was the voice of the young and I don’t necessarily mean under 25s – it looks like the under 45s swung the vote. The young clearly want change and I still feel I am in that bracket. So I challenge the government to show us, show us that it is not just the next five years that matter but the future. The future for those first time and second time voters, the future of our children, the future of our planet.

So, what could the Government do to safeguard the environment for the future – for our future – 80% of the British public want the environment to have the same if not stronger protection after Brexit[1] and wetlands alone provide over £7 billion in services a year.

Perhaps we should look to Wales. Back in 2015, the Welsh Government created an Act dedicated to safeguarding the future from short-term thinking, known as the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act. This means that all public bodies in Wales now need to consider how their decisions and policies help towards the goals under the Act. These goals include a resilient Wales and a globally responsible Wales. The former looks to “maintain and enhance a biodiverse natural environment with healthy functioning ecosystems that support social, economic and ecological resilience and the capacity to adapt to change (for example climate change).” We have no similar driver in England, simply a repeated rhetoric “that we will leave the environment in a better state than we found it”, which you’d think couldn’t be hard considering less than one fifth of our water bodies are in good ecological health and 13% of wetland species are nationally threatened[2].

Our children have less contact with nature than ever before and miss out on the health and well-being benefits that result. Yet housing plans threaten to stifle communities in an attempt to build as many houses as cheaply as possible. Sustainable drainage can help provide wildlife habitats in urban environments whilst also reducing surface water flood risk, improving water quality as well as enhancing local areas. Natural capital and environmental and social cost benefit should be integrated across ALL Government departments and create opportunities and drivers to make our cities bluer and greener.

There are so many opportunities ahead of us, including creating an agricultural system which delivers public goods for public money and offers a secure future for young farmers. However, Government has kicked into long grass proposals to put in place a sustainable and fairer water abstraction regime. Climate change will bring much more erratic weather events and we need to be certain that our systems are resilient and as effective as they can be to deal with these changes. Government must deliver a sustainable abstraction regime by 2020.

We also need to restore, create and enhance wetlands. Not just because coastal wetlands can help buffer communities against sea level rise or because restoring river habitats can help reduce flooding, but because ponds and lakes and wetlands are important for their own sake, for the wildlife that rely on them and the enjoyment we get from them.

If Westminster had the same duty as those in Wales placed upon them would it make a difference? Let’s not keep hearing that the Government will leave the environment in a better state than they found it – it’s time to show us.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

[1] https://www.foe.co.uk/sites/default/files/downloads/yougov-survey-brexit-environment-august-2016-101683.pdf

[2] http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/State%20of%20Nature%20UK%20report_%2020%20Sept_tcm9-424984.pdf

Preventing Pollution – progress towards a better environment

In March, Thames Water was fined for pollution incidents at six sites in the Thames Valley during 2012-14.  A combination of equipment and management failures meant the sites weren’t able to treat the volumes they were designed to, and discharged untreated wastewater to the environment.

We take full responsibility for what happened. We didn’t protect the environment we rely on – and it is up to us to put that right.

So what are we doing to make good what happened – and to reduce the risk of problems recurring?

First of all, we have paid £400,000 in compensation to organisations directly affected.  And we have added £1.5 million to our Community Investment Fund, ring-fenced for projects to help the rivers, wildlife and local environment in the vicinity of the incidents.

We’ve also strengthened the team looking after the region in which the incidents took place, so there are more staff, each with fewer sites to deal with.

Of course, people want to know what we’re doing to avoid similar problems elsewhere.  The answer lies partly in investment, with £26 million spent since the incidents to help ensure we meet sewage treatment standards, and reduce the risk of pollution from all our sites.

Severe weather and the devastating impact of wet wipes and other ‘unflushables’, were common factors across the incidents.  It is up to us to insulate our customers and the environment from these pressures, so, much of our focus has been to ensure we are more resilient to their effects.

This includes an £18 million programme to refurbish the screens that protect our treatment works from items including wet wipes, which have a crippling impact when they ball together, clogging pipes and breaking pumps.

But arguably the most significant changes we’ve made have been in our Wastewater Operational Control Room. In addition to doubling staffing levels, we’ve transformed the way we work, harnessing technology to take a much more proactive approach to managing our sewage works, pumping stations and sewer network.

This includes a new system for visualising near-live data so we can pre-empt potential problems.  We know, for example, from analysing previous incidents that sewage pumping stations can show unusual patterns of energy use before failing.

By tracking their energy use we can see where this is happening, and have intervened on up to 15 different occasions within a single month – in some cases averting potentially serious pollution incidents. By capitalising on the insights data can offer, we are shifting our focus from reacting to alarms, to intervening to prevent assets failing, flooding and pollution.

On the sewer network, our storm chasing project is perhaps the most innovative and influential change we’ve made.

Historically, we’ve used weather forecasts covering periods of hours, and large parts of our region – helpful in preparing for slow-moving weather fronts, but not the short, sharp storms that can quickly overwhelm our sewers.

We’re now using advanced weather radar, forecasting several hours ahead and showing changes at 15 minute increments, on a 2km grid, to pinpoint when and where a storm will hit. This makes it easier for us to proactively pre-position the teams and equipment we’ll need to deal with the potential impacts. It’s not so much chasing storms as getting ahead of them.

At the same time, a new Logistics Management Centre and ten distribution hubs with stocks of the kit we need to respond to events, means we can despatch crews to proactively manage the risk of potential incidents at a local level.

Taken together, these improvements have supported a significant reduction in pollution incidents from their peak in 2013.

The Blueprint for PR19 challenges companies to aim for zero category one, two and three pollution incidents and 100% self-reporting – and these are mirrored in our own aspirations. There’s much more we need to do to get there, including making our operations more resilient to the effect of storms – but we believe we’re making real progress.

Please don’t take my word for it. We are holding open days later this year at all the sites where incidents took place so you can see for yourself what we’ve done, and meet the teams who are doing everything they can to protect the environment on which we all rely.

Lawrence Gosden
Managing Director, Wholesale Wastewater – Thames Water

Pollution – The biggest problem facing our freshwater environment

For one of my first field visits for WWF, I visited the Hogsmill, a much loved chalk stream in South London. I was shocked to see evidence of raw sewage and rags entering a river that is so vitally important for wildlife and recreation within the local community.

The Hogsmill Riverside Open Space, an area much enjoyed by children and dog walkers alike, is also home to Ewell Storm Tanks. These storm tanks were added in the 1930s to increase the capacity of Hogsmill Sewage Treatment Works (STW) and were inherited by Thames Water from the local authority in the 1960s, with an operational discharge consent designed for ‘occasional use’. The tanks were to provide a relief mechanism to prevent back up of sewage through the network at times of exceptionally high rainfall and use. Although ‘occasional use’ is not defined, it is not expected to exceed a few times a year. But, when the South East Rivers Trust carried out testing in 2016, they found that there were 14 discharge events between January and May.

Last month the evidence was clear to see, even after a long period of dry weather, a path from the storm tanks down to the river had formed littered with wet wipes and sanitary products. And that is only the visible evidence. Water samples captured during a discharge event at the Ewell Storm Tanks showed elevated E. coli levels downstream of the outfall, highlighting the potential risk to human health as the river is used for recreational purposes, with children and dogs often entering the river.

An outflow drain filled with sewage rags entering the Hogsmill River (L). Rags caught in branches in the River (R).

But the Hogsmill sewer overflow is not a one off – there are thousands of these across the country in every water company area. With population growth, more and more concrete covering permeable surfaces, and rain washing straight off of roads, there is an increasing demand on the sewerage system. Therefore, it is likely that these sewer overflows will spill raw sewage into Britain’s rivers more frequently and with greater volume. This is likely to be further exacerbated by predicted climatic changes with increases in both the frequency and intensity of rainfall events.

That’s why Blueprint is calling on water companies and regulators to get a grip on sewer overflows and stop pollution of our waters. In the Blueprint for PR19, we are calling for:

  • Strategic long-term wastewater plans – these are essential to prepare for the future and should ensure sewerage and treatment systems are sufficient to prevent pollution in the context of population growth and climate change
  • Targeting zero pollution incidents – it is not enough to just reduce the number of major incidents, dealing with pollution for sewer overflows should be a top priority and we welcome an increase in monitoring to understand the impact sewer overflows are having
  • Dealing with emerging pollutants – pollutants must be dealt with at source by promoting less harmful alternatives and investing into innovative natural treatment solutions, such as wetlands
  • Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) prioritised – SuDS should be prioritised within a company’s own drainage scheme and used to reduce peak flows in the sewerage system, avoiding the need to invest in large underground pipes and providing biodiversity and amenity for local communities.

Alice Moore
UK Freshwater Assistant, WWF