South West Water (SWW) in collaboration with a group of regional conservation charities, including the Westcountry Rivers Trust, the county Wildlife Trusts for Devon and Cornwall and The Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group, have established one of the largest and most innovative conservation projects in the UK: the ‘Upstream Thinking Initiative’. 

This project will deliver over £9 million worth of strategic land restoration in the Westcountry between 2010 and 2015.

The ‘provider is paid’ funding mechanism used in the Upstream Thinking scheme is, perhaps, the most innovative aspect of the project. SWW have recognized that it is cheaper to help farmers deliver cleaner raw water (water in rivers and streams) than it is to pay for the expensive filtration equipment required to treat polluted water after it is abstracted from the river for drinking. SWW believe that water consumers will be better served and in a more cost‐effective manner if they spend money raised from water bills on catchment restoration in the short term rather than on water filtration in the long term. The entire 5 year initiative will cost each water consumer in the South West around 65p.

Proof of Concept

The principal, over‐arching aim of catchment management is to improve raw water quality in lakes, rivers and coastal waters. If effective, this approach could make a significant contribution to their attainment of good ecological status, in accordance with the EU Water Framework Directive. In addition, it could also reverse the escalating risks and costs associated with the treatment of drinking water from our groundwater and surface water sources and it could reduce the impacts of pollution on our most sensitive and highly productive estuaries and coastal environments.

Given the potentially significant role of this approach in the improvement of water quality, it is vital for that we collect sufficient evidence to provide an objective and scientifically robust assessment of the effectiveness of the interventions used. Ultimately, we must be able to justify that the money spent and the interventions delivered across the landscape have delivered both significant improvements in water quality and a number of secondary financial, ecological and social benefits.

The Upstream Thinking partners have worked hard throughout the first phase of the Project to gather evidence for the efficacy of the measures they have delivered. This evidence is presented on the Upstream Thinking website (, the Devon Wildlife Trust’s Working Wetlands website, the Cornwall Wildlife Trusts Wild Penwith website and the Westcountry Rivers Trust Data & Evidence website.

Fowey River Improvement Auction

In the first scheme of this kind in the UK, an auction was successfully used to distribute funds from a water company to farmers, investing in capital items to improve water quality. The work was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council Business Internship scheme, managed by the Environmental Sustainability Knowledge Transfer Network. The scheme offered SWW the opportunity to work directly with researchers from the University of East Anglia to devise an innovative mechanism for paying for the delivery of ecosystem services via their Upstream Thinking scheme.

Upstream Thinking uses an advisor‐led approach in other areas. Advisors from the Westcountry Rivers Trust visit farms to suggest work and pay grants at a fixed rate. The disadvantages of this approach are that it’s labour intensive, not practical to visit all farms and the potential for all the funds to be used on a small number of farms. The main advantage is that advisors can suggest investments most likely to improve water quality.

In the Fowey Catchment, the University of East Anglia devised an auction approach, working with Westcountry Rivers Trust, to: (1) increase coverage by encouraging all eligible farmers to participate, and (2) achieve maximum water quality benefits at the same time as achieving efficiency for SWW’s investment.

  • 150 farmers in the Fowey catchment, were contacted in Summer 2012 with a list of capital investments eligible for funding, plus additional farm management practices which could be added to increase bid competitiveness.
  • Farmers were asked to enter sealed bids up to a maximum of £50,000 per farm.
  • 42 bids were received, requesting a total of £776,000 and 18 bids met the value for money threshold, with grant rates paid in the scheme from 38% to the full 100%.

Visit the main Upstream Thinking website for more information

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