Defra goes down to the farm

An innovative approach to catchment monitoring is being piloted by Defra and the Environment Agency in anticipation of the Water Framework Directive. A Technology Strategy Board event gave Natasha Wiseman the opportunity to find out more

A £6M catchment monitoring pilot project led by Defra is hoping to bring water engineers and farmers closer together in an innovative approach to catchment monitoring. The project will assess the effectiveness of on-farm mitigation measures for reducing diffuse pollution from agriculture to water.

Through Environment Agency farming officers, the department began work on the three demo test sites in January and has identified the Avon, Eden and Wensome as priority catchments for the trials. The catchments also needed to be representative in anticipation of a potential wider roll-out. They are being modelled on soil, meteorology, flow and the nature of the terrain. Sub-catchments are also being identified for closer analysis.

The project is dependent upon relationships with farmers because of the density of the network of sensors needed to monitor land run-off. Access, security and mains supply all need to be guaranteed.

While the monitoring instrumentation itself is well established, Defra says that the collection of such a wide range of monitoring data, the use of telemetry for its transmission and the universal access available on a web platform with dedicated user-specific portals is an innovative approach.

It uses existing design and expertise built up during the trial the Environment Agency undertook with Thames Water analysing the impact of final effluent on the River Thames’ water quality.

It is expected that biological monitoring will follow the initial water quality monitoring. The Technology Strategy Board held a water catchment monitoring instrumentation workshop, in London on 22 June.

Speaking at the event on behalf of Defra, Kevin Hiscock of the University of East Anglia, who is leading the Wensome project, said that while pesticide monitoring would be desirable, the funding was not in place yet.

The web platform and telemetry component of the scheme is being provided by Meteor Communications. The company is already producing the software and will assemble the monitoring stations and add in laboratory and meteorological data.

The company’s general manager, Matt Dibbs, told WWT that the project will “demonstrate getting a lot of information back to one place – and interpreting it.”

He said: “Utilities have a gap – they undertake lots of process within works, but not a lot final effluent analysis, this will become more important.”

Dibbs also explained that the Environment Agency is pulling back from its monitoring role and the utilities are having to undertake more and more self-monitoring.

One instrumentation manufacturer expressed disappointment that Defra wasn’t being more adventurous with its choice of kit. Even where there are instruments with greater capability, they are not being trialled, he told me.

However, Hiscock said that the project had plenty of scope to test equipment and Defra was keen to hear from companies that wanted to get involved. He said they were looking for smaller cheaper equipment to apply more densely in the field, for example nitrate sensors. Dibbs said that one problem in monitoring catchments was the short life-cycle of chemical sensors.

Hiscock said that a quantitative shift had occurred in water company attitudes to monitoring since the Drinking Water Inspectorate asked them to consider catchment measures before treatment. Anglian has secured money in AMP5 for this, while Wessex Water has implemented a scheme where it pays farmers not to use pesticides.

South West Water has spent £9M in catchment works. Hiscock believes the spin-off benefits mean improved quality, reduced energy use as well as ecological gains.

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