Today’s farmers keenly understand their roles as custodians of our farmed environment. Agriculture is a vital industry in East Anglian, but in the driest region in the UK water supplies are precious.
Anglian Water has recently employed a team of expert agricultural advisors to go out onto farms and talk face to face with farmers, land owners and agronomists. The new team of catchment advisors bring with them a wealth of experience from the agricultural industry and will be offering practical advice as well as listening to the challenges farmers face and their ideas for farming with water quality in mind.
Why is Anglian Water working with farmers?
Now is a vital time for water companies and farmers to be working alongside each other, especially in the East which has one of the highest usages of arable pesticides such as metaldehyde, which is used to control slugs and is very difficult to remove from water.
Richard Reynolds heads up Anglian Water’s team of agricultural advisors and believes that as a company we have a responsibility to pro-actively engage with farmers on the issue of water quality.
“These days, the pressures on farmers are huge,” he explains. “But when it comes to water quality, doing nothing is not an option. If we don’t take action now, the UK is very likely to fail the European Water Framework Directive on river quality. The financial penalties for UK Plc could be enormous and could amount to six figure sums per day until it’s resolved - this is likely lead to regulation with significant implications for everyone.
“And then there’s the cost to our customers. If we fail to proactively tackle the issue of metaldehyde in our waterways, for instance, we will be forced to explore new options for treating our water. The high expenditure associated with this will inevitably result in large hikes in water bills. Furthermore, treatment technologies which can operate on the scale needed to produce the public water supply for the Anglian region are currently just not available.
In England, we enjoy drinking water that is among the best in the world. It is treated to extremely high standards and tested to make sure that it is clean and safe to drink.
Slug control is an ongoing battle across the Eastern region, an area with some of the highest usage of metaldehyde in the UK. Metaldehyde is the most common method of controlling slugs – but now more than ever, the product is under close scrutiny by Defra and the European Union.
At the 2015 Metaldehyde Stewardship Group Annual Conference DEFRA officials warned that there is now a ‘direction towards regulation’ regarding metaldehyde use and indicated that within three years, restrictions could be in place in high risk areas unless a solution to the problem of high metaldehyde levels in raw waters is found quickly.
Fertilisers containing nitrate and phosphorous are essential for growing crops in a competitive market place, but leaching and runoff often cause these nutrients to move into surface and groundwater rather than the intended crops.
We can reduce the levels of nitrate from water before it goes into public supply through ion exchange or by blending high nitrate raw water and waters with lower nitrate amounts. However, these are high-energy processes and the knock-on effect for customer bills mean that simply building additional water treatment is not a sustainable option long term.
Agriculture is certainly not the only factor affecting water quality in our region, with the largest source of phosphate in our waters coming from households including foodstuffs, food additives, laundry powders and dishwasher tablets.
Anglian Water has made significant investments across the region to remove phosphate from the water, but the chemicals and energy required to remove phosphate are expensive and have a high carbon footprint. New legislation is coming into play to reduce the levels of phosphate in detergents which will help but we also need to work closely with farmers to reduce the levels that enter the rivers from agriculture.