Doctor Mark Shepherd of rural and environmental consultancy ADAS, explains why the long-term sustainable solution to good quality water supplies will not be found at the end of the pipe
At the end of last year, the water industry revealed its spending plans for the next five years, earmarking a total of nearly £17B for a capital investment programme to 2010. This investment clearly underlines and emphasises the water companies' commitment to providing high-quality, clean water supplies, which meet industry regulations and customers' expectations.
The problem is, of course, the increasingly higher costs involved, which are passed on to the consumer. On average, it is predicted water bills will rise by around 4.2%, year on year, for the next five years. With water treatment getting more expensive, ongoing investment in treatment facilities cannot be considered a viable long-term solution and, certainly, this strategy does not fall into the category of 'sustainable'. It is now widely accepted agriculture is a major contributor to diffuse water pollution in the UK, an unsurprising fact given farmers manage more than 10M hectares of land across England alone, covering almost 80% of the land area.
Potential contaminants such as nitrate, pesticides, phosphorous and sediment are entering water sources. The result is high treatment costs for the water industry in order to meet drinking water regulations. The impact is serious - it is estimated nitrates and pesticides raise annual operating costs for water companies by more than £100M in England and Wales.
While water companies have the technologies to effectively treat polluted water, at a cost, this is not the only option for providing good quality water supplies. Indeed, the onus on solving the problem needs to move from end-of-pipe approaches, for example, shifting to improved land management to stop pollutants entering the water in the first place. However, many within the water industry question why they should get involved in reducing diffuse pollution when it is caused by farming. Furthermore, the current system of spending reviews does not allow commitment to approaches other than treatment. In fact, there are a number of benefits for water companies of tackling the problem of pollution at source rather than waiting until the water is badly affected. Effective land management can reduce the need for water treatment.
If this means avoiding building a new treatment plant, expenditure can fall by anything from 50-90% - a significant saving for the industry and, ultimately, the end user. But benefits accrue not only from reduced treatment costs. Reducing contaminants at source improves the overall ecology of the water. Perhaps, therefore, water companies should be involved in tackling this as part of an overall environmental policy. Such an emphasis on environmental sustainability will have a positive impact on the public image of water companies and will complement any green policies already in place.
So by what mechanism could the industry work with agriculture? Clearly implementation of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) will help here. The WFD means diffuse pollution will need to be tackled, which will have a major impact on agriculture.
Defra has already identified diffuse water pollution from agriculture as a priority issue and has been working for more than two years on a strategy to bring about change in agriculture. Catchment Sensitive Farming, as Defra now calls it, will become an often heard term as the agricultural industry becomes increasingly involved in decreasing diffuse pollution. Consequently, farmers are already starting to consider how they can adapt to decrease diffuse pollution.
Any work currently being delivered in this area will complement initiatives by the water industry to reduce diffuse source pollution. Set against this background, it is likely farmers will not be averse to working with the water industry to look for options to reduce water pollution but a collaborative approach requires a mutual understanding.
It will be vital that the industry can view the situation from the farmer's point of view, stepping into their shoes and taking into account their concerns and issues. Detailed farm assessments would need to be carried out, pinpointing exactly what farming practices are causing the problem. From this, a plan can be drawn up, which highlights the extent of the problem and how exactly it could be tackled. Each farm is different and each will require an individual, targeted plan for reducing diffuse pollution. While some solutions will carry small or zero cost, or could even save money (for example, development of a fertiliser plan), others could bear considerable cost (for example, new manure storage facilities). It is this latter case where the real challenge of bringing about change lays, particularly without regulation or financial incentives.
In theory, collaborative working seems to be a sensible and logical option but how can this actually work in practice? One possibility is the appointment of catchment officers who are tasked with working with farmers to look for ways to reduce diffuse pollution. Certainly, this is the way the government is thinking, with several examples of pilot catchments, with catchment officers, being developed. Two water companies, at least, are already looking at how they can allocate resources to help farmers to clean-up. Wessex Water is considering the employment of a catchment officer to work with farmers to try and reduce nitrate leaching. Northumbrian Water is also looking into how it can work with the agricultural community to tackle pesticides.
This leads us on to the question of who should pay for resources such as catchment officers. One option, as already mentioned, is for government, either national or regional, to provide finance. There is always an argument the 'polluter should pay' - that is, the farmers. However, in reality, how practical or feasible is this approach?
Would it be too big a step for the water industry to supplement government support for catchment officers? With the long-term prospect of reducing expenditure on treatment works, there is a possibility that water companies should have the capacity to fund catchment officers in some circumstances, especially where there is a direct benefit to that company.
Although this will mean investing in the short-term, the long-run savings will balance out the initial cost incurred. One argument against tackling diffuse pollution at source is that there are no guarantees of success. Water companies know for a fact that using water treatment is effective and investment in new works is tangible - they can see exactly what their money is being spent on. The effectiveness of reducing pollution at source is much more of a grey area. However, there has been a huge research programme into the land management techniques that can be employed to reduce diffuse pollution. For example, Defra has spent £50m alone over the last 15 years on nitrate research, with extensive research also on other pollutants, most notably phosphorus and sediment.
This has two major implications for catchment management. Firstly, we have a good handle on the management practices that can be employed to decrease losses. Secondly, and importantly for planning purposes, there now exists the modelling capability to enable the impacts on changed management practices on contaminant losses to water to be quantified. These tools would therefore allow water companies to estimate the effect of land management changes on pollution and help to predict and plan for the future, taking into account the savings that could realistically be made for the company and the consumer.
While better land management can reduce diffuse pollution, it is not going to happen overnight and we are certainly not suggesting water treatment is switched off immediately. There will inevitably be a time lag between implementing change and seeing the results in the soil could take anything from two years to many decades to remove contaminants. However, pilot schemes could be implemented to bring about a reduction in the use of, and ultimately, the 'switch off' of WTWs. While this may take time, there is no doubt in the long term this will bring massive financial savings.
So, we at ADAS believe there is a role for water companies to work in partnership with other stakeholders in addressing diffuse water pollution. Protecting the water resource is a government policy issue and, of course, Defra needs to take the lead. In cases where there will be tangible business benefits to the water industry, surely there is a good case for involvement. The sustainable solution is not water treatment, rather the prevention of pollutants entering the water at source, and the UK's water companies are well positioned to play a pioneering role in this area, in collaboration with Defra and the farming community. Of course, before it can happen, a more sympathetic view of this approach is required by Ofwat.