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Turning water innovation into everyday environmental benefit

Environmental groups and the water industry have something major in common: the desire for a sustainable supply of clean water – and a healthy natural environment can provide this, for both people and wildlife

September 2018

Environmental groups and the water industry have something major in common: the desire for a sustainable supply of clean water – and a healthy natural environment can provide this, for both people and wildlife. Water companies are increasingly recognising the natural environment as a solution to challenges around the abundance and cleanliness of water – supporting their core business – instead of as a problem hindering their activities.

In relation to water quality, this relationship is now well-recognised. A freshwater environment protected from pollution means that water abstracted for supply needs to go through less treatment, reducing the use of chemicals, energy and, as a result, budgets.

Catchment Management has therefore become an approach that companies are increasingly taking as an alternative to costly treatment further down the line: working with farmers, land managers and environmental groups to reduce the pollution of watercourses benefits both the companies and the natural environment.

The water industry, working with partners, is making great strides on joint water quality projects; From early adopters like United Utilities with their SCAMP programme; to Severn Trent’s Environmental Protection Scheme (STEPS), where groups of landowners are paid on the water quality results seen in the river. In relation to waste water, Wessex Water’s EnTrade reverse auction system invites farmers to bid to deliver nutrient savings which offset company discharges. Companies are proposing more of this work in the coming five-year business cycle (‘AMP 7’), and customers are supportive of this.

The recognition of the fundamental links between water services and the environment, and of the need to work jointly on problems around our rivers, lakes and reservoirs, is key to the commitment to work together more effectively in the sectors’ new shared principles.

This commitment could see us working jointly to develop new innovations which benefit both customers and the environment. One area of untapped potential is that of water quantity: During low flow events or times of drought – like we’ve experienced this summer – limits may come into effect on water companies’ abstraction licenses. Where this is a risk, companies may require expensive back-up plans like desalination. Yet a healthy, naturally-functioning environment can cope better with stresses like drought and can recover faster.

We now recognise the value of ‘wetted’ landscapes like the uplands of Cumbria or Dartmoor in reducing downstream flooding, by acting like sponges in times of heavy rainfall. This attribute makes them important in drier periods too - their ability to store and slowly release the water that maintains river baseflows means they are essential for both ecology and water supplies. So investing in creating resilient catchments could reduce the industry’s reliance upon the expensive alternatives that are put in place to ensure that companies can maintain customer supplies in times of drought.

It will take an innovative company or two to look more seriously at this approach if we are to realise its potential. But this was also the case with water quality, where catchment management is now becoming the norm, bringing with it substantial environmental and cost-saving benefits.

So we see water quantity as an area of great opportunity, and hope that pilot projects or investigations during the next five years (AMP7) can pave the way. We look forward to working with companies to develop such innovations, and to making them an everyday part of their business, so that wildlife, our waters, customers and companies alike can all reap the rewards of a more sustainable water system.

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

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.