South West Water’s Upstream Thinking programme is an investment in catchment resilience

Catchment Management and Natural Capital approaches have been highlighted by OFWAT as absolute requirements within the PR19 investment plans for water and sewage companies, alongside planning for resilience and the use of new market-led mechanisms for delivery.

To help understand the complexities of a “Natural Capital Approach to Catchment Management” South West Water’s Upstream Thinking and Biodiversity Manager, Dr David Smith, discusses the investments undertaken by South West Water through its Upstream Thinking programme since 2008.

Catchment management activities have become commonplace across the water industry and investments have been wide-ranging and focused on many outcomes from the specific, such as Metaldehyde reduction, to larger multiple-objective programmes.

South West Water’s innovative Upstream Thinking programme has evolved into the latter category, with a long history of developing many of the approaches now being promoted by OFWAT. Since the initial farm engagement projects with the newly formed Westcountry Rivers Trust in 2008, to reduce nutrient inputs causing algal blooms at Tamar Lakes, it has grown to a £10m investment focused on protecting rivers and reservoirs from detrimental landscape impacts across catchments and 15 water treatment works, supplying 310ml/day, or 72% of the region’s tap water.

The programme has two areas of work, lowland farms and upland peatland. Both are part of a long-term sustainable approach to managing costs by investing in natural capital as a way of reducing ongoing maintenance or delaying large capital investments, helping to keep customers’ future bills down.

The Upstream Thinking approach to catchment management

South West Water’s flagship environmental programme was developed to protect raw water quality and supply at source through working with a range of 3rd party organisations in the supply catchments. We focused on farm engagement and infrastructure investments alongside direct investments in habitat restoration such as the mires and culm restoration work.

Back in 2008, we were faced with increasing nutrient problems in our smaller, shallow reservoirs within the dairy farming landscape of Cornwall and Devon and increasing flashy DOC and sediment laden flows in the larger rivers we abstract from. With no significant catchment landholding we had to adopt an approach of working with others, both partners and landholders, to bring about change in the way the land is managed in the catchments.

The Upstream Thinking Programme is built on the principle of using trusted 3rd party organisations who have good knowledge of the catchments and the farming community as brokers between the Water Company who are seeking to invest in cleaner water and assured supplies and the land-owners and managers who have these “ecosystem services” to sell, but not the understanding of how to realise the business benefits that could arise. The Upstream Thinking farm advisors are staff from our delivery partners in Cornwall and Devon Wildlife Trusts, Exmoor National Park or Westcountry River Trust and they approach the farming community on the twin basis that they are not figures of authority from the Water Company or Environment Agency and that they have something to offer that will benefit their business. Both are important for starting the conversation and developing trust.

The advisors offer advice on how to manage spending on resources such as nutrient inputs, how to improve infrastructure to reduce risk around slurry management, and advice on habitat creation or management. This is backed up with match funding from South West Water to put the infrastructure in place, in return for future commitments on sustainable farm planning and the delivery of cleaner sustainable run-off from the farms. This is, in the new language of Natural Capital approaches, a “Payment for Environmental Services and Goods”.

The investment that leads to the delivery of these services is an investment in the Natural Capital that provides them, be it a direct investment in a farm wetland or a fenced riverside buffer strip or an indirect investment in a larger slurry store that leads to better decision-making around when to drive on the land to apply it, with resultant better soil condition, reduced compaction and less soil run-off into rivers.

The involvement of 3rd party Trusts has another critical advantage in their ability and experience in accessing match funding from sources not available to South West Water. They use this to support and extend delivery of the Upstream Thinking programme in the catchments, as well as the first source of grant funding for the farm infrastructure investments. In AMP5 this match funding contribution from sources such as Interreg and Countryside Stewardship tripled the value of the South West Water investment and the pot available for work in the catchments.

The use of the partners as 3rd party agents in the catchments also significantly improved the reputation of South West Water and the partners as it delivers economic gain to the farmer involved and reputational enhancement among South West Water customers who included environmental improvement in the 2015-20 customer panel business plan consultations.

The challenges Upstream Thinking seeks to address

Upstream Thinking aims to counter the multiple background resilience issues (climate change, agricultural intensification, urban expansion, bio-fuel production, etc) causing deteriorating raw water quality from catchments in the region and across the UK. Figures from the Environment Agency show that the quality of English rivers has continued to decline, in the South West River Basin District only 23% of water bodies are considered in good ecological status. Agriculture or rural land management issues were cited as the reasons for failure in 44% (table above) with new challenges emerging (geosmin, new chemicals and veterinary medicines), alongside existing concerns (Phosphate (P), Nitrogen (N), ammonia, Faecal indicator Organisms (FIOs) sediment DOC and pesticides).

The risks from this declining water quality that Upstream Thinking seeks to address include loss of service at water treatment works and potential additional costs due to unusable raw water supplies, taste and odour failures, and greater asset running costs leading to increased future investment and asset maintenance costs. The current programme also has a focus on pesticide reductions due to the schemes being on the National Environment Programme as Drinking Water Protected Areas at risk for pesticides.

Summary of long-term water company benefits:

n Resilience in quality and supply of raw water at drinking water treatment works

n A reactive presence on the ground in catchments

n A reduction in resource management and raw supply pumping costs

n Drinking water treatment costs reduced through less chemical use, sludge disposal costs, pumping and carbon costs.

Successful Natural Capital outcomes from Upstream Thinking

Engagement in Upstream Thinking has brought over 40,000 hectares into improved management. The delivery partners and the University of Exeter (UoE) have developed a coordinated monitoring strategy to define the impacts of this, both within the catchments and at South West Water’s water treatment works.

Clear evidence is now emerging of the resultant benefits to the natural capital stock of the upland catchments and river water quality, supported for example by independent research from the Defra-led Demonstration Test Catchment (DTC) on the Cauldworthy, a sub-catchment of the Tamar where numbers of fish fry have increased significantly since Upstream Thinking started.

Moving forward – emerging innovation in Natural Capital delivery

Catchment-scale thinking has evolved considerably since Upstream Thinking started and new ideas and ways of thinking now include the use of market-led Ecosystem Service payments and other innovative incentives for delivery, as well as the development of catchment management for natural flood risk management, catchment offsetting and other future applications.

The central ethos remains the same however, looking after catchments and raw water supplies at source is a sound investment in a natural capital solution for long-term resilience.