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Nitrates & Environment

Summary by Ray Cobbett, organizer, of the Havant Friends of the Earth Meeting 24-09-19 "Impact of the Development on Solent Waters" with Guest Speakers from Portsmouth Water and Havant Borough Council:

Tuesday’s meeting on nitrate pollution was absolutely packed with residents including some from Hayling. Speakers from Havant Council and Portsmouth Water Company outlined the key issues and the impact of excessive nitrogen on our rivers and coastal waters on the plants and animals that live in them. Following direction from Natural England, Havant Council published a position paper in June and is exploring various mitigation measures around the delivery of their new housing plans. Portsmouth Water presented an overview of their catchment area, how they track nutrients from various sites under their control and what they are doing to encourage a reduction of artificial fertilisers using plants that absorb it. Agriculture was the main source of nitrogen but there were others from vehicle emissions, waste water treatment, sewage and surface run-off.

Ray Cobbett from Havant Friends of the Earth who organised the event said,

‘It was an opportunity for residents to get the facts about a potentially very serious threat to the quality of our rivers and sea waters and the potential consequences of building another 10,000 homes in the borough."

HIRA member Wilf Forrow summarised his view of the Meeting as follows:

Background to the meeting

Water quality has become a major concern, not just for drinking, but also for wildlife. Britain’s groundwater has been deteriorating over the last 60 years. Over half is polluted by nitrates, some which won’t reach aquifers for up to 60 years, stoking a bigger problem in future.

Our three local harbours are huge nature reserves, containing many rare, endangered or vulnerable natural habitats and species of exceptional importance, so they’ve been rightly protected as European designated nature conservation sites.

But they’ve seen ever rising levels of nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates, which sound good, but actually starve the water of oxygen, increasing algae, disrupting the ecological balance, and seriously threatening higher life forms such as fish and birds.

We’ve done very little to fix this problem. But (thank goodness) a recent European court case has forced the government to act, with the result that all new developments must show they are ‘nutrient neutral’, i.e. they will reduce or at least not increase overall nutrient discharges.

Havant Borough Council (HBC): Presentation by David Hayward, Planning Policy Manager.

  • Nutrient neutrality has become a huge issue for all councils bordering the Solent. Working together will produce a better solution, as they do with Birdaware.

  • Natural England published advice and guidance saying that all new development must be ‘nutrient neutral’. But the Environment Agency (EA) are less stringent, so there’s uncertainty. And there’s not yet full agreement on how to measure nutrient neutrality, or what offsets are permitted.

  • HBC acknowledges the issue, and has produced a detailed position paper (link below).

  • Budds Farm sewage works accounts for 90% of Havant nutrient discharge into our harbours. These are Southern Water’s “permitted discharges”, heavily regulated by the EA, including the (contentious) right to discharge untreated sewage after heavy rainfall, albeit filtered.

  • Increased development increases the sewage load on Budd’s Farm. Upgrading it, or removing more nitrates would require a huge investment, which Southern Water would not make without increased funding, from government or from bills.

  • Tangmere sewage treatment plant has been upgraded to allow more development there.

  • There are 3 main ways to reduce nitrate levels:

1. Reducing agricultural load (see Portsmouth Water presentation below). 2. Removing land from agriculture, eg for development, woodland, Havant reservoir, etc. 3. Improving water usage and efficiency.

  • Water usage can by reduced by a number of things, such as water meters, showers instead of baths, disallowing power showers, etc. However big developers can be resistant, and councils have limited powers to insist.

  • Portsmouth has big council housing stock, so can enforce water usage controls more easily. But it has no agriculture to remove.

  • Brownfield land had low discharge levels before to offset, so development is harder than greenfield, which is not what most people expect or want.

  • NPPF (National Planning Policy Framework) also requires new developments to demonstrate biodiversity nett gain. Councils do not have the right to insist on tree planting, but do have persuasive power.

Portsmouth Water: Presentation by Simon Deacon, Catchment & Environment Manager.

  • PW’s main priority is drinking water quality, although any nitrate reduction would also have environmental and biodiversity benefits.

  • Most PW water comes from the aquifers deep under the downs, therefore mostly under agricultural land.

  • Southern Water has a much bigger water quality issue, as it’s catchment is more heavily populated and industrial areas, and more reliant on surface sources such as rivers.

  • Water can take days, weeks or years to percolate through the ground to the aquifers..

  • Heavy rain causes spikes in pollution, which are an increasing problem.

  • Drinking water quality is highly regulated, and it’s far more cost-effective to stop pollution at source, rather than try and purify it retrospectively.

  • Therefore they are working on persuading or incentivising farmers to reduce pollution at source, with better land and fertiliser management.

  • For example, research shows that careful crop rotation, ‘cover’ crops, tree planting and drainage management can significantly reduce nitrate leaching and fertilizer use, which also saves the farmer money.

  • It has to be farmer led, by encouraging them to form cluster groups and water catchment partnerships. Many, especially the big landowners such as Goodwood Estate, are keen and already involved.

  • These schemes also improve biodiversity and ‘natural capital’.

  • Leakage from septic tanks and especially oil tanks are a big issue for Southern Water, but less so for PW.

More information:

  • HBC Position Paper:

  • Portsmouth Water:

  • Environment Agency: State of the Environment: Water Quality

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