UK too slow to pick up ICM

Integrated Catchment Management is highlighted as a key tool in reducing diffuse pollution and delivering the Water Framework Directive. But whilst the ideas are there, the UK water industry is being too slow in implementing an effective policy, says Dr Mark Shepherd of ADAS Catchment Management.

Integrated Catchment Management will provide better sustainable sources of cleaner water for the UK. But are we being too slow to grasp the opportunity currently available for radical change? Whilst the scale of implementing truly effective Integrated Catchment Management is daunting, the rewards could be immense, both environmentally and economically.

The farming industry has been pilloried for the intensification and over-production, encouraged by EU subsidies, that is perceived to have built towering grain mountains, driven biodiversity in Britain’s fields to the brink of extinction and led to the wide scale pollution of UK water resources.

However, the situation is nowhere near as extreme, but it does ably demonstrate how quickly farmers will respond to political and financial stimuli. The water industry and regulators can now exploit this to develop an Integrated Catchment Management (ICM) policy that will deliver major benefits.

£200m Damage

The sheer scale of the problem facing ‘UK plc’ is mind bogglingly immense. Farmers actively manage over 10 million hectares across England alone, covering 80% of the land area. There is around 150,000 farm businesses, most of which impact on the several thousand water bodies identified by the Environment Agency. Estimates vary widely, but farming activities are estimated to cost up to £200m a year in clean up costs alone.

But it is possible to influence farming activities, through both the regulatory stick and the voluntary carrot – albeit with a price tag attached. Small changes to reduce diffuse pollution causes at the source, can make a significant impact downstream.

End of the pipe engineering solutions may give comfort, but the implications of concentrating all the efforts in one place can be horrendous when they go wrong. The Water Industry can no longer simply build itself out of the problem, with new contaminants being identified and new standards being set. Ever-increasing energy usage is simply not sustainable. The WFD’s multi-barrier approach demands new technology works alongside land management to avoid pollution in the first instance.

Pollution Peaks Reduced

A more effective ICM approach, to reduce the level of contamination coming in, immediately cuts the onus on the treatment process. Seasonal peaks in pollutants that most frequently coincide with in-field spraying operations in autumn and spring, intensive housing of livestock in winter or heavy rainfall periods washing contaminants through the system, for example, can seriously test the capacity of existing treatment processes – let alone cope with future pressure. Providing farmers with the impetus to reduce and manage more effectively operations causing pollution takes out the threat and helps treatment works to operate more effectively and at lower cost.

Whilst there are reservations about the open-ended liability of paying farmers for land management changes, if these payments are viewed in same terms as the operating costs of decontamination plants, then it becomes very realistic and fully justified.

It also comes without the huge capital investment costs and the environmental implications of massive industrial engineering development, or the disposal of material gathered during the treatment process.

Environmental Kudos

The environmental kudos for water companies to follow the ICM route could be immense. Not only will they reduce the damaging potential of development, but the land management practices encouraged to reduce water pollution will have direct benefits for wildlife flora and fauna. The water industry will be able to take the credit for a crucial boost in biodiversity that will help to fulfil its environmental obligations.

Furthermore, the global greening of agricultural support payments – linking financial rewards to environmental benefits, rather than food production – offers huge potential for the water industry to gain the benefits at minimum cost. The net result of current EU agricultural policy reform is likely to be a deintensification of agricultural inputs, particularly on land attracting the premium support payments. With the political will, and possibly relatively small additional supplements, the support could be effectively targeted at land that will have the most benefit in reducing water pollution.

However, the approach will require a hitherto unknown degree of cooperation and vision between the agricultural, environmental and water policy makers.

If the ICM strategy is to work, it demands a far greater understanding of the issues involved from the farmers’ perspective, as well as the water industry’s requirements. Decision Support Tools are becoming available as screening tools, based on general agricultural situations. But detailed farm assessment is necessary to identify specific problem areas and develop solutions. Many problems are farm or even field specific. That evaluation at this micro level hasn’t even started yet, on a large scale.

Case studies

Research and pilot studies by ADAS and others have demonstrated practical land management answers are available and can develop effective ICM solutions to specific problems, which are acceptable to farmers and will deliver required reductions in pollution. MAFF (and now Defra) has funded a large diffuse pollution research programme for many years, so that we have the basic understanding of how land management impacts on diffuse pollution.

The pilot Nitrate Sensitive Areas scheme is an excellent example of what can be achieved. This was a voluntary scheme, where farmers in sensitive groundwater catchments were paid for adopting changes in management practices to reduce nitrate leaching. Identified changes in farming practice were based on a sound research base – and worked. Intensive, long-term monitoring of soil and drainage waters showed reductions in N loss from soils, though transport times to the underlying groundwaters means that it would be some time before the benefits were realised. The scheme has now stopped, however.

There are still technical challenges ahead. For example, how some measures can be scaled up to cover the full catchment and a wider range of pollutants needs to be fully assessed for the costs and benefits.

Other ADAS projects have identified the need to fully understand the farming practices and hydrology of catchments, to implement improvements. We have done such work for Water Companies in relation to pesticides. Detailed site investigations are needed, but reap benefits when solutions can be found and implemented.


A major problem may be that there will inevitably be a time lag between implementing land management change and observing improvements in water quality, particularly in the case of diffuse pollutants. This could take anything from two years to many tens of years to clear the legacy of potential contaminants built up in the soil.

Too often the policy makers and water companies expect to see instant results. But unless we make a start with implementing ICM strategies now, things are never going to get any easier in the long-term. Direct monitoring of pollutants at an early stage of the process, such as detailed evaluation of field losses, will help to measure levels of success, as opposed to expecting to detect trends in the water bodies themselves.

Integrated Catchment Management sets in place a multi-barrier approach that has a far greater chance of success in improving water quality and a move away from the end of pipe solutions. Given the support and commitment it can prove a cost-effective solution that improves water management and enhances biodiversity.

Dr Mark Shepherd
ADAS Catchment Management
ADAS Gleadthorpe Research Centre, Mansfield, Notts NG20 9PF


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