Top Soil Conference

31st October - 2nd November

The Wear Catchment Partnership works to integrate land and water management across the Wear river system. The Wear Rivers Trust, Durham University and Northumbrian Water, supported by the Environment Agency and the Heritage Coast Partnership, have hosted the Autumn Topsoil conference. Delegates came from Denmark, Holland, Germany, Belgium and the UK, representing 16 individual projects. They were welcomed by the Mayor of Durham City and Chair of Durham County Council, Councillor John Lethbridge who said, “I was intrigued to listen to the multi-facetted approach to water management. Its international dimension poses a note of optimism in this uncertain world and I look forward to this valuable work being pursued.” 


The Topsoil project aims to better understand relationships between the surface environment and groundwater within the context of a changing climate. Groundwater is a vital resource, providing water for public drinking supply, for agriculture and, where it comes to the surface, supporting habitats including wetlands, chalk streams and the wildlife which depend upon them. 

A key theme running through Topsoil, and of key importance to all of the 5 countries represented, is how to protect groundwater from agricultural discharges. In many areas across the UK and Europe the soils, surface and subsurface deposits can allow the rapid transport of fertilisers and other chemicals from the surface into groundwater. A common challenge for many of the 16 Topsoil projects is how best to work with farming businesses to ensure a viable farming industry, producing good quality food, while at the same time protecting both surface and groundwater from fertiliser run-off.


A 3 trial year trial is underway in North East Durham, at Seaham Grange Farm, supported by Frontier Agriculture, looking at different methods of crop cultivation to see which method allows the most efficient uptake of fertiliser nutrients, leaving only a minimal amount of excess fertiliser in the soil after harvest. Remaining nutrients are be at risk of being flushed out from the soil into surface or groundwater over the winter. Seaham Grange is a commercial arable enterprise, filling the role of a demonstration farm, where other farmers can observe the methods trialled, consider results, including harvest quality, yield and the levels of nutrients remaining in the soil. 

Mike Slater, Fertiliser Technical Development Manager for Frontier Agriculture and presenting at the conference, said: “We’re finding that farmers are very receptive to improving environmental performance through better soil management and efficient use of fertilisers.  The Seaham project and has great potential as a showcase to promote the integration of arable farming and water management to local farmers and beyond. Along with our own network of soil demonstration sites, the project will help us share best practice with farmers, focusing on efficient nutrient use and improving water quality whilst maintaining crop gross margins.”


Building on the groundwater theme, conference delegates visited the Dawdon mine water processing plant which pumps water from the mine, removing 30 tons of iron hydroxide “cake” per week and returning the cleaned water to the sea. This modern industrial plant was then contrasted with the Ryhope Engines Museum, with its 150 year old fully working twin beam engines, which pumped drinking water to Sunderland until 1967 when the Derwent and Kielder reservoirs came on line. The Ryhope site continues to supply the city from its balancing reservoirs to this day.

Our visitors had the chance to visit Durham City, including the Cathedral, Market square, Townhall and local pubs, as well as the surrounding countryside. Topsoil project leaders Jes Pedersen and Flemming Jorgensen, representing the Central Denmark Region, commented “It has been a huge pleasure and very interesting to visit the Durham area. We are dealing with the same issues in our countries; but the issues are often tackled in different ways. This is why a project like the Interreg TopSoil project is so important. It enables a lot of knowledge exchange and we make use of each others' experiences to develop new methods and guidelines. The hosting town of Durham and it's magnificent Cathedral provided a perfect setting for the conference". 


Top Soil

What is Top Soil?

TOPSOIL is a EU cooperation supported by the Interreg VB North Sea Region programme: "Sustainable North Sea Region, protecting against climate change and preserving the environment." The project will be working on the improvement of water quality and quantity, while supporting environmental, financial and human benefits. Special interest will be paid to surface and ground water connectivity and its implication for water resource protection and management.

Hawthorn Dene

The Hawthorn Dene is an ephemeral stream, only existing for a short period following a precipitation event. According to the Water Framework Directive (WFD), all surface and ground water bodies are required to achieve the ‘good’ status by 2027. However, the Hawthorn Dene currently falls below the good status for its hydrology and ecological status. Although the groundwater’s poor status is currently not due to the Hawthorn catchment, the ‘leaky’ nature of the Hawthorn Dene coupled with the likely increases in storminess due to climate change has led to the thought that the Hawthorn Catchment may provide a pollution pathway to the groundwater. There are both natural and anthropogenic pressures existing in the area of the Hawthorn Catchment, these include: water authority sewage treatment works discharges, water authority groundwater abstractions, Coal Authority abstractions and Agriculture. The Trust is working in collaboration with the EA to update the current WFD report which will be condensed for public consumption through the Storymap project.

Story Maps

One of the main outputs from the Hawthorn Dene investigation was an updated WFD report for the catchment. This document is highly technical and can be difficult for the general public to understand and therefore the Storymap project was conceived. The interactive web resource utilises data/research obtained through the Hawthorn Dene investigation as an initial trial for the project, with an end goal of simplifying a complex report for public viewing.  The online resource allows the reader to go into as much detail as they require about the catchments recent WFD investigation, all while guiding the viewer through an interactive ‘story’. The project is in the process of being reviewed by partners and will be integrated into the Trust’s website when finalised. 

Cut Throat Dene

Building upon research conducted in 2017 at an analogous catchment (Hawthorn Dene), investigations at Cut Throat Dene (CTD) are in process of identifying connections between the CTD and a nearby public water supply at Fulwell pumping station. The CTD is ephemeral and is suspected to be losing to groundwater through sinkholes and fractures within the Upper Magnesian Limestone. Water chemistry analysis is currently being undertaken by the WRT & NW to identify any risk of degradation of water quality abstracted at the Fulwell borehole due to the connection of Boldon Flatts to the Cut Throat Dene in 2017. 

Magnesian Limestone Rural Diffuse Project

  

The MLRDP has been developed to provide farmers within the Magnesian Limestone aquifer area advice and guidance to help them protect surface and groundwater resources. Advisory visits identify opportunities whereby valuable nutrients can be retained and utilised around the farm instead of being lost through groundwater leaching and runoff; providing long term benefits for the businesses, improving long term farm resilience and whilst protecting the environment. The project focusses on the Magnesian Limestone aquifer which extends from Darlington, north through the Skerne catchment and Hartlepool areas, up to Sunderland in the Wear catchment. The aquifer covers an area of approximately 476km2 and is designated as Nitrate Vulnerable and a drinking water protection zone. The aquifer is used for strategic public and private water supplies and provides baseline flows for local surface watercourses. Under the Water Framework Directive (WFD) it is classified as being of poor status due to excess nitrates from agriculture. The focus area for this year’s project is within the north-west part of the aquifer where superficial drift (soil depth) is less than 5m deep. Free draining sandy soils, geological fractures and leaky streams act as pathways for water carrying expensive agricultural fertilisers and nutrients directly into the aquifer. 

A total of six farms will be invited to participate in the project. Following completion of farm visits proposed interventions which require capital investment will be costed, ranked and considered for funding when opportunities arise. Interventions will need to demonstrate good value for money and guaranteed environmental benefits.

PhD Research

Work continues by 2 PhD researchers from Durham University. Rebecca Smith is currently investigating Integrated River Evaluation for Management (IREM) on the Twizell Burn, Stanley. The project seeks to integrate factors affecting surface water (SW) and groundwater (GW) connections to better inform management interventions of local water resources impacted by multi-threats. This approach has been established to better manage water resources to meet standards (e.g. WFD; 2000/60/EC); a holistic assessment of the system behaviour and connections is required to deal with contemporary fluvial challenges (Brunner et al., 2017). Meanwhile Victoria Smith continues her research into the “Analysis of the current state of water-resource management in the UK using social network analysis and agent-based modelling”. The research focuses on communication between all partners within a project, problems that arise and hopes to highlight the strengths of the catchment-based approach. Analysis will produce a sociogram which will highlight key personnel links within the Topsoil project, as well as investigating issues that may arise when key stakeholders are removed from a project.