Helena Soteriou, Catchment Initiatives Lead at Thames Water

Over the last 30 years, we have seen a transformation in the standards which govern our water industry, with companies radically improving all key aspects of the service they provide customers, including reducing the impact on the environment.

Investment over this period has largely been directed towards more traditional ‘hard’ engineering solutions, tackling issues where they come to fruition rather than addressing problems at source. Of course, there is good reason for this, with water and wastewater companies having direct responsibility for the customers they serve. It has made sense to focus activities which have a proven track record to meeting the needs of the customer and one where water companies can have confidence in delivering a reliable and dependable service.

More recently, investment in catchment management activities has seen an exponential growth over the last two asset management cycles across all water companies. At Thames Water we are now working with well over 300 farmers across 25 river sub-catchments to implement activities which ultimately have a benefit on raw water quality avoiding the need for further investment at our water treatment works. However, these activities are focused at a single water quality issue such as pesticides and driven by the need to meet water framework directive (WFD) regulatory requirements. The opportunity to take a broader perspective and manage the catchment as a whole has rarely been taken.

Yet anyone working in this sector at the moment, unless they have been burying their head in the sand, will be fully aware of the increasing challenges we are facing. Sir James Bevan painted this picture perfectly in his ‘Jaws of Death’ speech back in March. For us, meeting the demand of an additional 2 million customers living in the Thames Water region by 2045, combined with the impacts of climate change and extreme weather events, is putting the environment and the rivers we depend on under ever more stress. Getting the balance right between delivering an affordable customer service and stewardship of the environment on which we are so dependent needs to become a mainstream activity which can no longer be overlooked when it comes to running a sustainable business.

We have seen a strong and increasing support for catchment management approaches from stakeholders including landowners, catchment partners and right across the public policy framework. The current Government rhetoric is encouraging the sector to place a greater value on the natural environment and the role of working in partnership to deliver this. Furthermore, this is supported by our regulators, who have set strategic priorities and guidance when it comes to influencing our business planning process.

Recognising the environment as a system and tackling multiple issues in partnership is the premise of our ‘Smarter Water Catchments’ initiative. Wherever possible, we will seek to implement solutions which harness natural processes and capitalise on opportunities of greater scope and scale, as we believe that investing in this way will provide further benefits and better value to society and the environment. Thames Water plan to introduce this as a bespoke performance commitment from April 2020 across three diverse river catchments which are representative of the challenges found throughout our region.

In order to understand the extent of these benefits, it is critical that we develop an evidence baseline of the natural capital available in each catchment, prior to implementing any solutions. Our initial assessments of these three catchments indicate that there is a myriad of challenges to address in the water environment, and depending on the partners’ perspective, a number of viable opportunities to pursue.

On paper, nature-based solutions seem like an obvious answer. There are many examples across the UK of how they have demonstrated water quality benefits, supported biodiversity and ecosystem restoration, and delivered value to the communities that experience them. Yet in practice, there is great uncertainty around whether the required environmental standards can be achieved consistently by these ‘softer’ approaches and how the regulatory processes will develop to support them.

The process of river basin planning is a complex one, which is currently under review for the next iteration to be published in 2021. These management plans form the basis of the Water Industry National Environment Programme, which indicate the required environmental standards water companies must meet when delivering their operations. With a finite amount of money available through customers bills and shareholders investment, it is down to each company to determine the most cost-effective way of delivering these standards. This well-established framework has led to a plan which aims to improve 745km of river in the Thames basin for the period between 2020-2025.

Across the south east, these required standards for measures such as Phosphorus reduction at sewage treatment works are some of the tightest in the UK. We have a number of sites which would require permits of between 0.25 and 1mg/l to be established to contribute our fair share to supporting rivers to meet good ecological status. Currently these permits are not flexible and would require solutions which provided certainty that these environmental standards would be met year-on-year (whilst also being the most cost-effective option). Moreover, these standards are considerably tighter than nature-based solutions have been demonstrated to achieve to date.

Getting to a stage where we have complete confidence that nature-based solutions can achieve these required standards, even in combination with a more traditional asset-based approach, is still someway off under the current framework; it requires robust evidence which often favours investment towards more traditional ‘hard’ engineering approaches, even if they were cost-effective. Making a step-change towards these solutions, as a direct replacement, is currently neither feasible nor fit for purpose.

As outlined in Sir James’ speech, the clock is ticking down and we are fast approaching these projections which have influenced so many of our long-term plans. We need to rethink as an industry how we best influence this framework to support nature-based solutions and fully recognise the natural capital potential that they have to offer our river catchments.