Letter: Time to link water quality and crop surpluses

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The Independent Online
Sir: The recent debate about cleaner rivers and better drinking water seems to have overlooked one vital point ('What is the price of pure water?', 14 July). Recent EC measures, such as the nitrate directive (the removal of nitrate from water), are concerned with improving the quality of river water so that the water is of acceptable standard before it is abstracted for use as drinking water.

It follows that the cost of improvement will fall not on the privatised water companies but on the Government. This is presumably why the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is deciding how to designate the 'vulnerable zones' required by the nitrate directive. Drinking water quality is not the only issue here; the protection of aquatic ecosystems, freshwater and marine, is a parallel aim.

This new style of legislation raises interesting questions about the scale of environmental management. The National Rivers Authority has the statutory duty to maintain our rivers in good order. The nitrate directive can only be achieved if some mechanism is found to compensate farmers for lost income caused by enforced land use change. Reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy to take account of the impact of agriculture on the environment might provide the necessary finance; otherwise the Government must meet the cost.

You are right to ask for better justification for the cost of improving water quality. In the case of river basin management, the separate investments in water quality and crop surpluses would make more sense if they could be combined in some way. Targeted land use change would allow modern agriculture and good quality water to coexist in the same area - but this requires an integrated approach. In its absence, the inefficient use of public funds seems set to continue.

Yours sincerely,


Lecturer in Physical Geography

University of Oxford