Interruption to your water supply - UB7 - West Drayton
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You are here : At Home > Sustainability > Catchment management
All the water that we supply to our customers comes from rivers and groundwater aquifers in our local communities. Water cannot be manufactured, so we must rely upon the natural environment which is also vulnerable to a range of pressures. A key part of our programme is to manage and mitigate these risks to ensure we provide the best quality and value of water for our customers.
A catchment can be defined as an area of land on which rain can fall and drain into a specific watercourse. This can be influenced by characteristics such as land-use type, geology and topography. Catchment characteristics can differ significantly between catchments and therefore present different pressures and challenges.
The aim of our catchment management team is to understand:
We complete this process in the form of Catchment Management Risk Assessments (CMRA’s). This is where we use standard methodologies such as walk-overs and aerial surveys to assess each of our drinking water catchments.
The main aim of the CaBA chalk stream restoration strategy is to attempt to address – how to restore good ecological health to these unique rivers and the landscapes which support them.
Our initial aims for the River Beane catchment are:
The Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) is an inclusive, civil society-led initiative that works in partnership with Government, Local Authorities, Water Companies, businesses and more, to maximise the natural value of our environment. The project is one of twelve project under the chalk stream strategy (catchmentbasedapproach.org/learn/chalk-stream-strategy/).
Chalk streams in their natural condition are home to a profusion of life. Botanically they are the most biodiverse of all English rivers. For invertebrates, fish, birds and mammals, they offer a vast range of habitat niches. In Wessex they are a stronghold of our chalk-stream Atlantic salmon, now known to be genetically distinct. The upper ephemeral reaches, known as winterbournes, are global hotspots for a unique range of specialist plants and invertebrates.
But chalk streams are under immense pressure: they flow through one of the most urbanised, industrialised and farmed parts of the UK. Three chalk streams flow through London and there are many more in the chalk hills that surround the capital. Further afield, though many flow through more open countryside, that countryside is busily farmed, while villages or towns are sited somewhere along most chalk rivers. All these streams are impacted in one way or another by the activities of people. We depend on chalk streams for public water supply, and have leant heavily on the resources of the underground body of water that feeds these streams. And yet every litre of water we take out of the aquifers – and we take billions and billions of litres to irrigate our crops, or run our taps – is water lost to the natural environment. Lost, that is, until we put it back. Only by the time we return water to these rivers it is no longer in the state in which we found it and has bypassed long reaches of the stream. It has passed through our sewage systems, becoming rich in nutrients and other pollutants. We may treat it, we may even treat it to a very high standard in some places, but in many others we do not. Routinely, we put back into these wonderful ecosystems water which makes them eutrophic, so that oxygen is sucked away from the river life which depends on it. Even the water which we do not take out, which actually makes it to the underground aquifer or the stream, is unnaturally changed by human activities. Our heavily farmed landscape exerts a huge pressure on water quality, either because rain runs off the land and along roads, accumulating harmful chemicals and nutrients along the way, or because it seeps down into the ground carrying with it the chemical fertilisers which have been applied to the land. There is now so much nitrogen in our chalk aquifers that we do not know how long it will take – even if we stopped applying nitrogen as fertiliser – for the aquifers to become clean again. Finally, we have changed the rivers themselves, modifying them heavily over the centuries. We have used them for milling, for transport, to drive multiple agricultural and industrial revolutions. More recently, in the post-war decades, we made one of the most drastic and permanent changes of all: we dredged them. We took out the gravel river-bed – on which almost all chalk-stream life ultimately depends – and dumped it on the banks, all in an ultimately misguided attempt to drain the landscape.
Another important part of understanding our catchments is monitoring water quality across our rivers and groundwater. Our team completes regular sampling of all the major rivers and tributaries in our patch. During this sampling, we take into consideration a range of variables that are important for drinking water quality. We also perform ad hoc sampling for specific investigations and respond to pollution incidents that may impact our sources.
Using the information we gather in our catchments enables us to decide, whilst working with our regulators, the Environment Agency, where we can work more intensively to stop a particular issue such as high nitrate or pesticides in water. This work is delivered under the Water Industry Natural Environment Programme (WINEP) driver. It forms the backbone of much of the work we deliver in our catchment management team.
Given that many of our drinking water catchments are dominated by agricultural land use, farmers and the agricultural sector are important stakeholders. We work with them to realise the improvements needed in our catchments.
A key focus of our work with farmers is around improving soil health. Soil covers most of the land in our catchments, apart from those that have already been built upon.
We can’t affect how much rain falls from the sky, but the next best thing we can do is influence the soil. Many farmers are working towards more regenerative farming systems. These systems put soil health at the centre of their decision-making. This means that soils will be more resilient and more able to infiltrate water. It can then slowly percolate through the soil and into our groundwater aquifers rather than running off, causing pollution and flooding issues.
Building soil health will be central to making our catchments more resilient to the weather extremes we are already seeing and they're likely to become more frequent in the coming decades.
We’re doing this by sponsoring Groundswell, a regenerative farming event near Hitchin in Hertfordshire. We’re also funding cover crops and companion crops. They help to protect farmers' soils, build soil organic carbon, and reduce runoff.
Our catchment management work is only one of many projects that are working towards improving our landscapes and catchments. It’s therefore important for us to work in partnership with others who also play a part in the health of our water courses. We sit on all the catchment partnerships in our patch and contribute where needed. We also work in partnership with other water companies where our catchment boundaries overlap. For example, we're joint funding the EnTrade cover crop scheme with Cambridge Water. We're also participating in the Thames Catchment Management Steering Group (TCMSG) with Thames Water and South-east Water.
Catchment management for a water company has primarily focused on improving water quality. However, in recent years, our work has become more holistic. We aim to maximise the wider benefits that can be obtained from working at a landscape scale in our catchments. Interventions that are good for water quality and water resources can also benefit biodiversity, mitigate climate change, and improve air quality, as well as make the environment in which our customers live a better place.
We’re currently working on PR24 for our AMP8 business plan. We aim to invest in catchment projects that not only benefit the water environment but, where possible, maximise other ecosystem services.
To investigate and determine the source(s) and pathway(s) for nitrates that affect the quality of water abstracted at pumping stations.
To inform future investment plans for Affinity Water, both in terms of catchment management and treatment in AMP8 and beyond.
Identifying sources for investigation
Affinity Water undertakes routine catchment risk assessments for all its sources, this includes reviewing 'raw' water quality data which is sampled before any treatment. These regular reviews identify sources that may require a thorough investigation due to poor water quality or trends indicating deteriorating water quality. In the case of nitrate if the concentrations follow a seasonal trend this is likely to be a diffuse source and/or influenced by groundwater levels. However, if the nitrate concentrations follow a diurnal pattern or have sporadic spikes, then it is likely related to a point source.
Nitrate investigation methods
A desk study and field is carried out on investigated sources. This can range from identifying all land uses that may contribute towards nitrate in groundwater, as well as recent developments that may impact the source. Additionally any pollution incidents within the catchment are investigated, conceptual modelling of the abstractions groundwater catchment, where appropriate sampling rivers and drilling observation boreholes to monitor nitrate levels, engagement with local landowners and farmer surveys, remote sensing wet weather walkovers, historic cropping, waste water infrastructure mapping. These methods are all carried out to determine the source of potential pollutants sand the pathways to abstraction.
Abstraction nitrate modelling
In the most recent nitrate investigations, hydrogeological modelling by Stantec was used to determine the key inputs of nitrate, spatially map nitrate inputs, predict long term averages and ranges trends. Some examples of this are shown below. In addition, Stantec included modelled scenarios of potential future catchment management schemes and how reductions of nitrate concentrations could be made to reduce long term trends.
Outcomes of investigations
Overall the investigations allow Affinity Water to make an informed decision for future management of its sources, taking into account appraisal of catchment management schemes to reduce nitrate, cost of installing or upgrading treatment, and long term sustainability of the aquifer.
In summary, the key objective is to provide an early warning to the Catchment Management team that would trigger desktop and site investigations, enabling timely interventions which could prevent or mitigate contamination to the aquifer.
In response to this requirement, it has been demonstrated, through the initial scoping and proof of concept development phases the efficacy of remote sensing for identifying a range of sources of pollution through a series of pilot workflows and prototype analytics dashboard. These methods were subsequently applied across all SPZ1 sites, with additional detailed manual interpretation applied to a subset of priority sites. This provided AWL with an up-to-date risk review from satellite data across all SPZ1 sites.
The piloted analysis workflows need to be implemented within an operational software environment to provide ongoing, periodic monitoring across SPZ1 and SPZ2 sites. This data can be integrated into a user dashboard to aid in review of anomalous data and prioritise further inspection, including site visits. The proposed system will provide an integrated system for management of pollution sources within SPZs that allows a significant volume of imagery data to be automatically and frequently captured and analysed with up to a monthly frequency. A built-in prioritisation based on trigger thresholds will allow for consistent methods for identification of potential incidents and clear processes for triaging and managing response activities.