Call to reward farmers for reducing the amount of polluting runoff in Welsh rivers

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One of the swales to absorb water which has been installed by Welsh Water in Llanelli as part of its £116m RainScape project

Richard Youle, local democracy journalist

A scheme that rewards farmers for reducing the amount of polluting runoff that pours from fields into rivers should be considered, a director of Dwr Cymru Welsh Water has said.

Steve Wilson said he thought the idea had merit and would be brought up on this month’s Royal Welsh Show as part of a discussion of problematic catchments where new developments are pending .

Mr Wilson also said planning controls should be considered to make it more difficult for households to tarmac their workouts, which contributes to more surface water entering the sewage system.

He was speaking to the Local Democracy Reporting Service ahead of a consultation on a new Welsh Water Drainage and Wastewater Management Plan – a long-term strategy to reduce the number of times sewage and waste water are found in rivers and the sea.

Councils and other organizations that own drains will need to participate fully.

Mr Wilson, managing director of sewage services at Welsh Water, said the combined overflow pipes that sent surface water and sewage to rivers and the sea ran “much more frequently” than they wouldn’t want it.

“The pressure is rightly on the water companies to fix the problem,” he said.

Mr Wilson said any intervention would cost money and Welsh Water had already committed to £800million in environmental improvements over the next five years.

He said everyone had a role to play in reducing surface water, including households who made the problem worse by covering driveways with tarmac and concrete or replacing lawns with artificial lawns, thus preventing the rain from penetrating the ground.

Asked about his support for the introduction of planning controls for such projects, Mr Wilson replied: “Yes, I think there is a need. Everyone wants to see the water quality of rivers improve. In fact, we all have a role to play – it’s not just the water companies.

terraced streets

He said new developments must separate surface water from sewage lines from the outset. What was more difficult, he said, was intervening in built-up areas, Llanelli being an example.

Mr Wilson said more surface water entered the city of Carmarthenshire’s sewer system than its much larger neighbor across the Loughor Bridge, Swansea, before a £116m Welsh Water scheme of pounds sterling.

It was a legacy, he said, of Llanelli having a higher concentration of terraced streets and less green space compared to Swansea.

The RainScape project diverted surface water from the Llanelli sewer system via a large eight-metre pipe under Station Road and into the estuary.

Shallow channels of vegetation, called gullies, were installed to absorb the water. Upgrades have also been made to nearby Gowerton.

Mr Wilson said combined storm overflow pipes at Llanelli were now running 10 to 20 times a year, up from 60 to 80 – sometimes more – before RainScape, and that water quality in the estuary had improved. improved.

Eradicating all storm overflow spills, he said, would literally involve intercepting rainwater on each individual property.

Flooding of the River Towy, Carmarthen (photo courtesy of Natural Resources Wales).

Rain events

The combined storm overflows act as relief valves during heavy rains, preventing homes and businesses from being flooded, although in severe cases the system may be overwhelmed.

Mr Wilson said Wales typically experiences one, two or three rainfall events every 50 years a year, but this increases due to climate change to four or five and potentially six or seven by 2050.

This rainfall intensity must be taken into account in the long-term drainage and sanitation plan.

Conversely, hotter, drier summers can aggravate pollution damage to rivers because there was less water to dilute it.

Mr Wilson said Welsh Water was working well with councils which were badly hit by Storm Dennis in February 2020 and had a “fantastic” relationship with Cardiff council.

The Swansea board, he said, “was a bit more difficult but by no means the worst”.

He added that ownership of drains, pipes and culverts was fragmented, with councils owning some for example. He said it was not uncommon for parking lots to be connected to the sewer system when they shouldn’t be.

Phosphate levels

Meanwhile, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is responsible for major river flooding.

NRW fears that phosphates from agricultural runoff and domestic and industrial developments will harm the water quality of rivers.

It has published targets to reduce phosphate levels in rivers in Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) in Wales.

Just over 60% of water bodies in Wales are failing to meet the stricter targets – mostly in mid and south Wales – and councils have been urged to take more action.

Any proposed development in SAC river basins must now demonstrate that the project will not contribute to increased phosphate levels.

The situation has left planning applications in limbo in these areas, including parts of Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Powys.

Carmarthenshire is having to alter its emerging development plan for the county due to the phosphate problem, and may even have to remove some proposed housing in affected catchment areas.

The councils have set up Nutrient Management Councils, which will develop a management plan and actions to achieve the conservation targets set by NRW for the River Tywi, Teifi, Cleddau and Wye SACs.

NRW phosphate level maps for West Wales presented to the Thriving Communities Monitoring and Review Board.

Phosphate stripping technology

Carmarthenshire Council has launched a ‘Phosphate Calculator’ to help developers calculate and mitigate the impact of a development on phosphates.

An option could be suitable for all water treatment works in these areas with phosphate stripping technology, although some already have it.

Mr Wilson said Welsh Water had 164 sewage treatment plants in river SACs and was adding phosphate stripping to 11 of these on the Wye, and planned to present plans for more.

But he said doing so at smaller treatment plants serving smaller communities made less environmental and financial sense, especially in rural areas where 60-70% of nutrient runoff came from agriculture.

Mr Wilson said offering farmers cash to reduce runoff by using less fertiliser, for example, or planting trees at the edge of their riparian fields, might be a better option.

He said this ‘capture permit’ idea would be discussed on the Royal Welsh Show at a meeting called by Prime Minister Mark Drakeford.

“It’s very tricky,” Wilson said. “If you were to say use less fertilizer or sow the fields less, it is more difficult (for farmers) to make ends meet. We try to have these discussions with agriculture.

Ecological status

He pointed out that there had been a lot of investment and improvements over the years, and that some coastal areas did not have sewage treatment plants until the 1990s.

He said Wales had 15% of the UK’s coastline, but more than double the proportion of Blue Flag beaches. He said 46% of rivers in Wales were in “good” ecological condition, compared to 14% in England.

Asked if he would swim in the rivers of Wales, Mr Wilson, who lives in Pontarddulais, said he had a few kayaks and used them in the rivers while his family members used stand up paddle boards.

Welsh water bills are rising by an average of around £20 – or 3.9% – for metered customers this year. The increase is greater for households without a meter.

The not-for-profit public service has 1.4 million domestic and business customers, including some in England, and is owned by Glas Cymru.

It is the subject of three ongoing investigations by the Environment Agency in England, the agency said.

Mr Wilson said sewage reduction measures would take a long time and had to be affordable.

“The water industry can provide any level of service that customers want, but it comes at a price,” he said.

Owat’s comments

Asked about new drainage and waste water management plans published by water companies in England and Wales, water regulator Ofwat said:

“Drainage and wastewater management plans are currently being developed on a non-regulatory basis. They will become a legal requirement through the Environment Act 2021.

“Unlike water resources, there was no legal requirement for water and wastewater companies to produce long-term drainage and wastewater management plans, so in 2018-2019 the industry came together to build on the principles set out in the Environment Agency and Ofwat’s Drainage Strategy from 2013 to incorporate a consistent, structured and collaborative approach to drainage planning and sewage.

“The Guiding Principles define priorities and expectations. These include striving to provide resilient infrastructure to respond to operational and other pressures, developing mitigation options to help protect the environment, and facilitating economic growth.

“Wales water companies should establish long-term and short-term plans to reduce storm overflow discharges and any resulting environmental damage.

“This should include improved wastewater treatment, improved storage capacity and natural and environmentally friendly ways to reduce the volume of water entering the sewage system.”

When asked how important the plans could be to customers’ water bills, the watchdog said he would consider affordability when evaluating the company’s business plans. company, adding:

“Any figures presented in the plans will be rough at this stage. Only when companies balance their requirements against other parts of their business plans for the next price review period (2025-29), and we make our final decisions in late 2024, will we will understand the impact on invoices.

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