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 and needs safeguarding.
It is vital that Anglian Water work with farmers to ensure that we maintain healthy water quality as well as healthy crops and a healthy rural economy.
Anglian Water has employed a team of expert agricultural advisors to go out onto farms and talk face to face with farmers, land owners and agronomists. The team of catchment advisors bring with them a wealth of experience from the agricultural industry and offer practical advice as well as listening and responding to the challenges farmers face and their ideas for farming with water quality in mind.
Why is Anglian Water working with farmers?
It is vital for water companies and farmers to be working alongside each other to protect our water resources. This is particularly true in East Anglian, 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.
“I’m extremely proud to see our team of advisors making the vital connections that need to be made across the Eastern region. I believe this is the start of a much closer relationship between Anglian Water and Anglian farmers.”
What are the issues surrounding agriculture and drinking water?
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.
During some periods of the year, the only option that water companies, such as Anglian Water, have to maintain these standards is to moderate the amount of water it takes from affected rivers and reservoirs at certain times to ensure pesticide levels do not exceed the standards for drinking water. But, the approach is not sustainable as it places restrictions on the amount of water available for public supply.
One of the hardest pesticides to treat in raw water is metaldehyde. Metaldehyde is a common product used for slug control in the UK, and tends to be used by farmers in autumn and winter to protect winter crops in their early, vulnerable growth stages when slug pressure is high due to wet conditions. Other herbicides used by farmers in oilseed rape such as propyzamide and carbetamide can also pose an issue for drinking water treatment if seen in high enough levels.
Fertilisers containing nitrate and phosphorous are essential for growing crops in a competitive market place, but leaching through the soil and runoff across the surface of the soil often causes these nutrients to move into surface and groundwater, rather than the intended crops.
Anglian Water can reduce the levels of nitrate from raw water before it goes into public supply high-energy processes such asion exchange or by blending high nitrate raw water and waters with lower nitrate amounts. However, these are costly, energy intensive processes and the knock-on effect for customer bills mean that simply building additional water treatment is not a sustainable option long term. This is where the role of the catchment advisor comes in, to pro-actively work with farmers around at risk boreholes to put measures into place to improve and safeguard the water in these sources for future generations.
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.