Working with nature to protect our water

Watersmeet in Exmoor National Park

Credit: Tom Meaker/GettyImages

Scientists have been working with South West Water plc since 2006 to transform the way that upstream water catchments (including moorland reservoirs and lakes) are managed. The results are already improving water quality, reducing water treatment costs and enhancing natural habitats, and with further significant investment now secured.

Detailed analysis, working with partners at South West Water, explored the idea of reducing pollutants at source to reduce costly water treatment processes and to enhance the downstream water quality. This provided the necessary evidence base for approval by Ofwat of future catchment management investment.

Under the NERC-funded South West Partnership for Environment and Economic Prosperity (SWEEP) programme, scientists have worked since 2017 with SWW to develop a Whole Catchment Water Management Plan for the entire south west region, which has underpinned the water resilience theme of the company’s 2020-2025 Business Plan. In 2019, Ofwat gave this plan fast-track approval, stating that it ‘set a new standard for the sector.’

Impacts and benefits

2,000 hectares of bog on Exmoor have been restored by SWW and shown by the researchers to have cut the peat content of drinking water by up to 50% and reduced storm water runoff by a third (equivalent to 6,630 Olympic-size swimming pools less water entering downstream rivers).

Underpinned by the work of the scientists, investment in SWW’s Upstream Thinking programme has grown from £4.5 million in 2010-15 to £17 million in 2020-25, with a target of 80% of catchments to be improved. Catchment management work by SWW is projected to have a natural capital benefit of over £40 million and a 3:1 cost-benefit ratio for the investment made.

The work of the team was described by SWW as “a critical component in delivering efficiency in our business” and the NERC-funded SWEEP programme contribution to the 2020-25 Business Plan “has been vital in demonstrating quantitatively the benefits of catchment management to our customers and the environment”. It has also helped SWW secure over £15 million of new funding from Ofwat for catchment management.

Last updated: 20 February 2023

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