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 Exmoor National Park Authority, have established one of the largest and most innovative conservation projects in the UK: the ‘Upstream Thinking Initiative’.
Through the success of the first initiative, funding has now been secured for a further 5 years for work across strategically important river catchments in the West Country. These river catchments include the Fowey, Tamar, Exe, Dart, Otter & Cofton Cross. With the aim of improving Water Quality, there is a particular focus on preventing pesticides from entering our water.
Worth almost £12 million, Upstream thinking 2 is made up 14 separate projects stretching across the South-West. The 14 projects, run by the 4 partners, will benefit 15 water treatment works which together supply 72% of the regions tap water. UST is aimed at everybody and anybody that uses pesticides. This will range from practices such as forestry, agriculture, golf courses and gardeners. All land management activity has the potential to impact water quality in our rivers.
The first round of UST aimed to improve water quality through nutrient and sediment reduction. This second round will still be working on those same principles but in this round UST will be led by a pesticide reduction focus. Drinking water is subject to stringent European guidelines for pesticides and this project will be working to remove as much of them from the watercourse as possible before they reach the water treatment works. This will have an improved benefit to river ecology as well as saving money for practitioners through improved practices.
As with the initial round of Upstream Thinking, a collaborative approach will be undertaken which sees stakeholders informed, advised and assisted in how they can play their part in the protection of river catchments as part of an integrated approach to good land management.
The ‘Upstream Thinking’ Initiative arose from some ‘lateral thinking’ on behalf of the project team – all conceded that we ask a lot from landowners in our rural catchments. We ask them to produce food, which they can get paid for, but we also ask them to deliver clean water, protect biodiversity, contribute to flood defense, mange landscape character and accommodate recreation and access, most of which they cannot get paid for. Unsurprisingly they struggle to deliver all of these services to the level required by society.
Instead of resorting to prosecuting landowners for not delivering all of the above services under the traditional ‘polluter pays principle’ the group felt that landowners should be financially encouraged and rewarded for their positive actions in what could be described as a new ‘provider is paid principle’. Additionally, the nature of agricultural pollution is such that there are thousands of small pollution incidents across a wide area, which do not often breach water standards but which collectively cause polluted rivers.
The funding mechanism for this approach is the most innovative element: South West Water 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 . Accordingly, SWW have proven that water consumers would be better served by spending a small proportion of the money raised from the water bill on catchment restoration in the short term rather than a larger proportion, on water filtration in the long term. In the longer term water consumers (all of us) will benefit financially. The icing on the cake, however, are the spin-off benefits resulting from this ‘upstream approach’. The environment, which is why most of us live in the Westcountry, will be protected and restored on an unprecedented scale. Conservation and biodiversity will become part of the living working landscape rather the preserve of nature reserves. Farmers will be fairly paid to deliver all sorts of essential services for society in addition to food.