The nutrient time bomb
1 September 2006
Nitrates and phosphorus from agricultural chemicals and fertilizers are contaminating many rivers and groundwater in the UK - and will continue to do so for the next 70-80 years, even if tight restrictions are put in place now.
Scientists from the Natural Environment Research Council have been tracking how rainwater moves through the layers of soil and rock in lowland catchment areas (drainage basins) to end up in rivers and groundwater - a major source of the UK's drinking water. Through this Lowland Catchment Research (LOCAR) Programme the scientists are now able to predict the rate at which rainwater flows through the ground and have also found that, as it moves through the soil, the water becomes contaminated with agricultural chemicals.
Some of the polluted water finds a rapid route to the river through cracks in the ground. But around 70% of the water soaks slowly through permeable layers of soil and rock - such as the chalky downs of southern England - taking many years to reach the water table below, but still carrying its cocktail of nutrients.
Professor Howard Wheater, one of the LOCAR research team, said, "As the use of agricultural chemicals has increased, the amount of chemicals in the chalk has built up - creating a time bomb of pollution just waiting to find its way into our drinking water. We have fed our findings into a model that predicts when this pollution will reach the rivers, helping catchment managers to draw up a timetable for taking remedial action."
This is just one of the results being presented at the LOCAR 'Go with the Flow' conference in London, at which the new findings from the programme will be outlined to users such as policy makers and water companies.
Journalists are welcome to attend the conference which is being held on Friday 15 September at the Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR. The event starts at 10am with coffee and registration.
There is a buffet lunch provided so it would be helpful if you could let us know if you will be attending. Register by contacting the press office giving your name and publication/broadcast organisation details.
NERC Press Office
Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue
Swindon, SN2 1EU
Tel: 01793 411561
Mob: 07917 557215
1. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) brought
together a multi-disciplinary team of around 100 scientists
and students, who have studied different components of
the complex path that water takes through permeable catchments,
and who took on the challenging task of bringing these
components together to give a unique picture of how the
system functions as a whole.
An essential requirement of the LOCAR programme was the establishment of high quality field research facilities in three contrasting permeable lowland catchments - the Frome/Piddle in Dorset, the Pang/Lambourn in Berkshire and the Tern in Shropshire, through a £5m programme of equipment installation and maintenance. The funding was provided from a £2m Joint Infrastructure Fund grant to a consortium of universities and institutes and from the £7·75m allocated by NERC to the LOCAR programme.
2. NERC is one of the UK's research councils. It uses a budget of about £370m a year to fund and carry out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. It is addressing some of the key questions facing mankind, such as global warming, renewable energy and sustainable economic development.
Press release: 52/06
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