Priority catchment wide issues have been agreed with all interest groups using the best available scientific evidence around causes of the problems and specific solutions. This includes findings from the Wensum Demonstration Test Catchment, and Environment Agency, Natural England, Broads Authority, and water company monitoring and modelling. Findings have been used to inform actions based around the goals and activity areas for this plan. Most issues have a range of causes and actions can address multiple issues if effective measures are well targeted.
Summary of current catchment issues
- Over 90% of rivers still fail to meet European Water Framework Directive targets due to factors including physical modification, water quantity, phosphate, dissolved oxygen and fish populations.
- At times, some groundwater and river sources exceed drinking water standards for nitrate and pesticides, resulting in the need for expensive treatment and subsequent greenhouse gas emissions as well as increased water bills.
- Some habitats, especially water and wetland related, protected due to their internationally important bird life or rare and diverse wildlife, still do not meet European Habitats Directive standards for reasons including excessive nutrients and sediment.
- Heavy rainfall running off of rural and urban areas causes surface water and river flooding in specific locations. Tidal surges continue to threaten lives, property, farmland, coarse fish populations and important freshwater wildlife habitats.
- Some landowners are losing valuable topsoil, nutrients and pesticides due to erosion, run-off or leaching – sometimes linked to soil structure and compaction.
- Water levels in some cases are too high for agriculture or too low for wildlife and amenity, while recent droughts have resulted in a lack of water availability for agriculture, wildlife and public garden use.
- Many local farmers feel that proposed new environmental land management agreements are too short-term. Some potential options may lack flexibility to suit individual farm circumstances, especially for the Broads and river valley grazing marshes.
- Some local communities feel that their views and knowledge have been ignored and that there is a lack of opportunity to experience, learn about, or carry out voluntary action to their local waterways.
Historic, current and future pressures
- Following shortages and rationing during the Second World War, farmers were encouraged by Government and public demand to produce more plentiful and cheaper food. This included the installation of more efficient pumped systems in the low-lying catchment and the removal of hedgerows in many areas to increase land area for arable planting.
- The soils are well suited to growing vegetable crops which, in particular, can require large amounts of fresh water, especially in dry summers.
- There was, and still is, a public need for ‘authorities’ to provide clean water, and collect and treat waste water that is mostly discharged to rivers. Public demand for water is usually greatest in hot, dry weather.
- Over half of the rivers have been physically modified – often as a result of historic flood defence, land drainage or milling activities. This has provided social and environmental benefits in many cases but has affected water dependent wildlife habitat and even increased downstream flood risk in some cases.
- Unrestricted recreational use in some situations has posed a disturbance threat to wildlife such as breeding birds.
- Complicated prescriptive agreements have discouraged farmer uptake of environmental stewardship schemes with implications for landscape and nature conservation. The development of anaerobic digestion plants is increasing the planting of maize – a high run-off risk crop.
- Climate projections are for an increase in average temperature with drier summers, wetter winters and more intense rainfall.
- Planned development of over 40,000 new homes by 2029, and seasonal population increases through tourism, will also increase the pressure on water availability and water quality.
Some current and future opportunities
- Scientific research and development is producing drought and disease resistant cultivars and nutrient fixing crops. Technological innovations are also providing more efficient watering and harvesting systems. Precision farming reduces nutrient and pesticide use and Controlled Traffic Farming greatly reduces soil compaction.
- Improved markets for local, less intensively produced food, crafts and fuel could prevent further loss of important grazing marsh and fen habitat. Rush, sedge and reed are harvested from local wetlands. Local beef and lamb from the Broads and river valleys grazing marshes can potentially command higher prices. The market for organic food is growing and recent evidence suggests higher returns and shorter supply chain links for growers.
- The Renewable Heat Incentive for biomass boilers, and the increasing popularity of wood burners, could encourage more woodland planting with potential benefits for wildlife, soil and water resource protection if appropriately located. The catchment is a Forestry Commission ‘high priority’ for woodland planting. The Woodland Trust promotes tree and hedgerow establishment and provides free trees and advice to communities and landowners.