The slug killing pesticide metaldehyde is to water companies what slugs are to farmers; a costly problem; a £600million problem.
That’s how much we estimate it would cost to set up drinking water treatment for slug pellets (metaldehyde) across our region. Plus another £17million each year would be needed to run the systems. And it’s not even clear if it would be successful. Not all pesticides can be removed by conventional treatment technology, and metaldehyde treatment on such a large scale hasn’t been done before._U5C6006 (1)
Why is this an issue? The Drinking Water Directive says individual pesticide levels in drinking water must not exceed 0.1 micrograms per litre, and regulators want to know by 2017 how this limit will be met for metaldehyde. Primarily how pesticide levels in raw water sources used for drinking water supply will be tackled. At present an outright ban on metaldehyde from 2020 is a real possibility unless UK policymakers choose to pursue a more bespoke approach.
So what are the options? Can customers afford the £600m for widespread metaldehyde treatment? At a 21 per cent increase in their water bill, it’s doubtful. And we don’t believe it’s fair to expect customers to be the financial backstops for problems that aren’t of their making anyway.
And so, this is where catchment management comes in. By understanding the various factors affecting the natural catchments and by the different stakeholders working collaboratively, it is possible to reduce the amount of pesticide getting into raw waters that are used for drinking water supply. Trials from ourselves and other water companies have shown this. And there are numerous other customer and environmental benefits that come from catchment management too. What remains to be seen is whether it’s enough on its own to meet the legislation or whether additional supporting regulation is required to prohibit metaldehyde use on high risk land. With the 2016 season being the last opportunity to gather data before regulatory decisions have to be made, what happens between now and November will be crucial to inform the debate.WP_20150901_008
There are many different stakeholders from various sectors who need to actively engage when it comes to finding solutions to diffuse water pollution like this. A collaborative approach across multiple sectors including agriculture, chemical manufacturers, water, and regulators is what’s needed.
With that in mind, water companies are moving more into the realms of catchment management. They recognise that the approach brings, such as reduced cost of treatment which is good for customer bills, and a whole host of environmental benefits . The majority of the big firms, like us, have dedicated catchment management departments or are investing in collaborative catchment thinking. However, catchment management isn’t something that should be the sole responsibility of water companies to deliver either. More organisations need to take responsibility for water stewardship and catchment management as essential and best practice approaches, and regulators need to mirror this in the regulation too.
In July, we hosted a Metaldehyde workshop to bring together water companies, chemical manufacturers and water regulators.
The event was focused on presenting the findings from water company catchment management initiatives, including our own Slug It Out campaign – the UK’s largest ever metaldehyde-free farming trial aimed at meeting the drinking water directive.
Slug It Out achieved a 60 per cent drop in levels of metaldehyde detected in reservoir tributaries last year, but it was not enough to meet the legislative limits in all areas.
Other water companies have also run similar trials. The results from the three companies all show that even removing 100 per cent of metaldehyde from farmland is still not sufficient to meet the drinking water legislation. The reasons for this are being investigated but it’s believed the chemical takes longer to break down than previously thought, and could be coming from other sources such as domestic allotments.WP_20150831_012
What the trials have proved is that water catchments are all different and respond differently, meaning one size fits all legislation – such as a nationwide ban on agricultural metaldehyde – would not be effective. It could also place the UK agricultural industry in a worrying position where one of its most important tools in fighting pests that damage crops could be lost. We don’t support that.
Water companies want to safeguard raw water quality and meet the standards, but the findings from ourselves, and others show blanket measures, such as an outright ban, may not achieve the necessary results.
We believe catchment management is the best solution, but we also believe there needs to be a catchment-by-catchment approach to legislation that mirrors the differences in catchment reactions across the country.
Through our catchment management strategy and our team of in-house farming advisors we’re working collaboratively with farmers and the agricultural sector more closely and more effectively than ever before. It’s now in the hands of policymakers as to whether they will take heed of the trial results and learnings observed.

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