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Of catchments and cows

by Sarah Mukherjee | Shared x 1

There aren't many water company meetings where a central theme of the discussion is how much the attendees love, or indeed hate, cows. But then catchment management is relatively new on the business agenda.

Over the last few years, water companies have started to run projects looking at how water quality can be improved by reducing the number of pollutants, like pesticides and fertilisers, that get into the water in the first place, instead of building treatment plants to remove those chemicals futher downstream.


The advantage should be that it's a cheaper solution than "pouring concrete", but there are a host of other potential benefits. Working with farmers to cut down fertiliser run-off reduces risk of algae growth, which can choke rivers of the oxygenated waters that fish need to survive. Restoring peatland, slowing down the speed at which water moves from sky to tap can, among other things, improve the colour of the water, but has many other benefits for wildlife.

This week, Water UK hosted a forum that brought together water companies, conservation groups and the regulators to talk about their experiences so far, and what role catchment management will play in water quality in future.

Much of the morning was taken up with case studies from four very different companies, but common themes quickly emerged.


Firstly, the amount of time the companies concerned have spent engaging with other organisations to get these projects underway. Some have secured match funding for projects from Natural England or the Environment Agency; another was working with charities like the Rivers Trust to deliver the water quality, and environmental, benefits. All companies talked about the many groups they had contacted when setting up the projects, and the incidental benefits this had brought in terms of educating and informing consumers.

Secondly, it was clear that catchment management provides local solutions to local problems, and the geographical links between companies and catchments are key.

Catchment management can provide a host of benefits, but is not without its problems. People attending the forum spoke of a wealth of information being available, but a lack of co-ordination between pilot projects, and there were concerns about how you scale up these projects to make them the norm rather than exception. But everyone agreed that, when it works, catchment management is a very useful tool. The challenge will be, especially in the current economic climate, to usefully extend this innovative work.

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