Author Fran Southgate
Restoring water quality by enhancing wet heaths
When I hear people complaining about their water bills, I often ask them what they poured down the drain yesterday. On a daily basis, Water companies spend millions stripping out the chemicals, smells, sediments, colours and bacteria that we humans put into the water, before they pipe it back clear and clean into our taps. In many areas, often the water processing is purely cosmetic, because we all hate to see brown water coming out of the tap, even if it is only discoloured by natural soils and rocks.
Increasingly however, the costs of processing water at the ‘end of the pipe’ are escalating, and the energy and resources that it takes to strip out pollution is becoming unsustainable and actually rather nonsensical. It is far more efficient to stop our water from being made dirty in the first place, than to allow anything we like to run into it, and then to spend billions of pounds trying to take it all out again.
This means we have to take a look at the whole landscape through which our water drains, and to try and work out ways that we can stop soil erosion, chemical spray drift, road run off etc from polluting our water at source. Even our underground water sources in Sussex which provide over 70% of our drinking water, are now being polluted by things like slug pellets and fertilisers.
Projects such as South West Waters ‘Upstream Thinking’ where moors and mires at the source of the catchment were restored, have been ground breaking in the massive benefits that they have had for wildlife and habitats whilst also helping to increase carbon storage, reduce flooding and decrease the water processing that water companies have to do. Local water company South East Water has now developed a sister project which hopes to improve catchment landscape management and water resources throughout the Ouse valley.
Sussex Wildlife Trust too can help improve the state of the water arriving at our water treatment plants. In areas where the land is sandy and easily erodible, we have started to try and reduce land drainage, so that water runs off the land more slowly. This means that any rainfall running off our land has less power to carry soil and other pollutants as it flows downriver, and less power to erode more land as it goes. Not only this, but strategically blocking some of the ditches and drains on our land can help to restore some stunning wetland habitats too.
Recently we visited our stunning Graffham Common nature reserve, a heathland in West Sussex which in the past was a forestry plantation on sandy soils. Forestry plantations have often had huge networks of ditches or ‘grips’ put into them in order to drain them to make access for the extraction of timber more easy. Unfortunately this means that many of our wet heathlands have been massively drained, leaving us with only tiny fragments of this unusual habitat remaining. Now that the forestry operations have ceased, these sites are ripe for a bit of re-naturalisation, along with pine tree removal and heathland restoration.
During our site visit, we found a large number of big drainage grips at Graffham Common, and we are very pleased to announce that we will be spending some time over the next couple of years blocking and infilling some of these grips to ‘un drain’ this unique landscape. The hope is that some of our more enigmatic wet heath species such as the carnivorous sundew and the sponge-like sphagnum moss, as well as some of our rare heathland birds and dragonflies will start to make a more regular appearance once we hold on to a bit more water in our site. Hopefully this will not only benefit wildlife, but it might help make your water bill just a fraction smaller as well!!