Protecting and enhancing our water environment

Ruth Barden, Wessex Water

Dorset is blessed with a beautiful and diverse landscape from Chalk downland and streams, to wet woodland, heathland habitats and the coast.  This landscape is a product of its geological formation and our influence through agriculture, industry and domestication.  Therefore, the nature and quality of our environment also reflects these interactions.

Society appears to be awakening to the state of the environment: locally, nationally and globally.  It’s about time too!  This awakening may be a response to Covid-19 lockdowns and a greater appreciation of our immediate surroundings, climate change and global disasters or other influences.

Constructed wetlands Cromhall water recycling centre, South Gloucestershire © Wessex Water

From a water company perspective, there has been increasing awareness of water quality and communities have re-discovered their local watercourses and beaches, there has been a rise in wild swimming and national media has focussed on storm overflows.  This raises the question of: “What do we want our water environment to be?”.

There is no easy answer to this as is depends who you ask. For some, rivers should be swimmable and drinkable, others prefer the re-naturalised riverine landscapes and habitats, whilst others feel comfort from visible flood defences and the quick escape of water.  This presents a challenge for organisations with responsibilities for water quality and water quantity such as water companies, the Environment Agency, Local Authorities and society more widely.

Media headlines present the doom and gloom scenario of every waterbody being polluted and not achieving the required chemical standards set out in European legislation, with only 16% of England’s watercourses achieving good ecological status.  There appears to have been a decline in water quality, however the opposite is true.  Waterbodies are monitored for over 83 different parameters from phosphorus to Brominated diphenylether (BDPE) to fish. As data, sampling and analytical techniques improve, apparent performance declines whereas we know river ecological health is improving.

According to the Environment Agency’s 2020 classification data, 70% of Dorset’s rivers were at high or good status. 18% were classified as poor, bad, failing or not supporting good, and for 70% of these failing waterbodies, the reason was attributed to chemicals, such as Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), man-made chemicals used as flame retardants and in electrical equipment.

So what is the answer: more sewage treatment, banning certain substances, behaviour change, nature based solutions, partnership work?  In short, all of these.  There is no silver bullet, we all need to recognise and take responsibility for our own impacts on our water environment and work together to deliver improvements. 

Right: Wareham water recycling centre nitrogen removal plant © Wessex Water

Advanced infrastructure solutions may be the answer in certain circumstances, but this comes at a high carbon cost.  For example, nitrogen removal at Wareham water recycling centre will, when fully commissioned later this year, remove 12 tonnes per year of nitrogen, whilst emitting 327 tonnes carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually (having consumed 2,200 tonnes in embedded carbon to construct).  Nature based solutions such as integrated constructed wetlands and re-naturalised river systems are alternatives to reduce nutrients, bacteria and pharmaceuticals often providing carbon capture and improved habitats, but are believed to lack certainty.  Equally, changing our own behaviours in the home can improve our watercourses and beaches.  Correct disposal of wet wipes, fats, oils and greases, and separating surface water from foul sewers, have significant impacts on the operation and capacity of our sewerage systems.

Working with farmers cover crop trial, Poole Harbour catchment

There are some very successful examples of partnership working yielding tangible results and improvements.  Wessex Water has worked with farmers in the Poole Harbour catchment for over ten years to reduce nitrate losses to groundwater and ultimately, Poole Harbour.  Working with over 150 farmers we collaboratively deliver a reduction of over 80 tonnes per year of nitrate leaching, with wider natural capital benefits. This has been an evolutionary and collaborative process which is enabling the development of the Poole Harbour Nitrogen Management Scheme to further reduce nitrate losses and achieve conservation targets.

Left: Working with farmers cover crop trial, Poole Harbour catchment © Wessex Water

Dorset Wild Rivers is a similarly successful and enduring project working with Dorset Wildlife Trust, Dorset AONB and Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group to improve our river and wetlands in the county.  Connecting with local communities, fisheries and farming groups to restore rivers, streams and ditches. In 2020-21, the project improved 5.7ha of wetland habitat, planted nearly 5,000 trees and engaged over 150 people.

Connecting people to their local environment is key to drive change. Little Free Dorset has been instrumental in raising awareness of action and connections with beaches and water quality, such as the ‘Beach Starts Here’ and ‘Yellow Fish’ campaign.

If we want to improve our water environment, we, as individuals and organisations, need to work in partnership to achieve the healthy and clean watercourses and beaches that we want to enjoy.  This will involve difficult questions and challenges along the way but our experience demonstrates that we can achieve great things together, benefitting Dorset more widely than when working in isolation.