Case Study: South West Water

Working with South West Water to deliver environmental benefits and costs savings

15 Jun 2023 Nature Positive
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Working with South West Water to deliver environmental benefits and costs savings

Our work on the award-winning ‘Upstream Thinking’ project with South West Water (SWW) has restored and protected over 100,000 hectares of land across the South West, enabling substantial cost savings and improving water quality and biodiversity.


The pioneering work enabled a ‘whole catchment’ approach to water management which helped the company secure £14.5M in new funding approval for the period 2020 to 2025 from regulator Ofwat, to reduce operational costs whilst delivering improvements in biodiversity and water quality. The inclusion of this in the Period Review 2019 submission helped secure SWW’s business plan and ‘fast-track’ status through Ofwat approvals, worth £200M in the resulting more favourable financial terms agreed.


Managing whole catchment areas has increasingly become the chosen approach to reduce agriculture pollution in freshwater, due to its potential to vastly improve water quality and reduce costs for water companies.


In 2017, SWW were keen to invest further in catchment management solutions within their business planning and deliver these through the Upstream Thinking (UST) programme but, at that time, lacked the key evidence needed to support the investment case.


A team of University of Exeter experts, led by Dr Donna Carless, worked closely with SWW to develop a robust analysis of the catchment-scale processes that impact natural capital, economic development, and health and wellbeing in the region. As part of this, the team developed a ‘Natural Capital Accounting’ tool that could calculate the potential impacts of interventions to restore nature, such as woodland management and restoration.


This successfully delivered the evidence needed to secure £14.5m investment in a catchment management approach, while enabling the company to embrace environment-led decision-making and the economic benefits it can deliver.


David Smith, UST Programme Manager at South West Water, said: “The University of Exeter team helped us look at our data in a new, and really valuable, way. The SWEEP natural capital valuation tools helped us show that the expected return on our primary investment in the catchments was fourfold. Their academic perspective and mapping, data analysis and processing skills made us much better informed about the natural environment as a result.”


This pioneering work strengthened the strategic partnership between the University and SWW, and led to a £21m initial investment from Research England for the new joint Centre for Resilience in Environment, Water and Waste (CREWW).


From ensuring clean drinking water for everyone, to creating sustainable water networks and supply solutions, to preventing pollution in waterways, including microplastics, the Centre’s research is focused on making impactful positive changes that will make a difference to communities, businesses and ecosystems.

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