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It’s time to rethink the way we treat our precious drops of water. Dan Green from Wessex Water advocates a more holistic approach to cleaning water, where it’s not the environment that pays.

Our rivers and coastlines have come on a long way since the UK was labelled the ‘dirty man of Europe’, thanks to the country’s rigorous approach to European water legislation over the last 15 years. But the methods prescribed for this mean that we’re using far more energy and chemical-intensive water treatments, and aren’t paying enough attention to other ways of improving the water environment.

Granted, traditional forms of water treatment are effective – but sustainability has often been sacrificed. For example, chemical dosing of sewage is the most reliable way of removing phosphorus from sewage to avoid the growth of algae in rivers, but this involves thousands of lorry-miles to deliver the chemicals involved. At the same time, phosphorous continues to be washed into rivers from farmland on which fertiliser has been applied. Similarly, regulators insist that effluent discharged near bathing waters is disinfected with UV light 365 days a year – an extremely energy-intensive way of cleaning water. Meanwhile, beaches are still being contaminated by run-off from built up areas, farmland and even bird roosts.

It’s time we looked at our water in the round. That means not simply viewing it in terms of a supply chain that starts with the water companies, but in terms of the wider catchment areas of our rivers and aquifers. The way society uses this land affects the water.

The good news is that ‘catchment management’ is starting to enter political discourse. River basin plans are to be the first major step in meeting the EU Water Framework Directive, which wants to see good ecological, chemical and quantitative status for surface and groundwater by 2015. While the devil is in the detail – still to be worked out through a stakeholder process co-ordinated by the Environment Agency – it’s encouraging to see an emphasis on the ‘polluter pays principle’, and government’s agreement that diffuse pollution from urban and rural sources must be tackled as well as point source pollution.

Wessex Water has made a start on using these more holistic ways of improving the water environment. For example, we’re looking at how to tackle the increasingly critical issue of low flows in rivers. We’re investigating just how much water can be abstracted from aquifers without damaging the ecosystems of chalk streams, and are weighing up the environmental impact of abstracting water from currently underused sources.

We’re also collaborating with farmers to enable them to work in greater sympathy with local soil and water conditions. In an area near Dorchester where nitrate levels are rising in the local aquifer, our catchment adviser is offering advice on fertiliser use. Meanwhile, near Weymouth, where heavy rainfall led to high levels of pesticides in water sources, we’ve reached an agreement with farmers not to spray chemicals close to the source, on a three-year trial. We’ll also be sampling the groundwater and soils to better understand how pollutants get from where they enter the catchment area to the abstraction point.

Wessex Water is by no means a lone voice on this issue, and momentum is gathering elsewhere. Defra’s catchment-sensitive farming programme, the Environment Agency’s Landcare initiative in Dorset and Forum for the Future’s land resources work are already demonstrating the benefits of a more integrated approach. Yet it speaks volumes that water regulators consider such projects to be ‘novel’ or ‘risky’. Also, the jury is out on whether it should be the water companies that primarily fund these activities, or the statutory agencies such as Defra and the Environment Agency.

Isn’t it time to roll out a programme of schemes tackling localised water quality problems in every catchment in the country? Our concern is that, in the rush to implement European legislation, the government will sidestep the bigger challenge of bringing about a culture change within land use, and resort back to the quick fix of imposing stricter legislation on water companies. It would be a major lost opportunity if we were to rely solely on the traditional end-of-pipe solutions that are so costly to society and to the environment.

Dan Green is environment and sustainability manager at Wessex Water.
Wessex Water, 0117 929 0611, www.wessexwater.co.uk

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