Water is a central element in all upland ecosystem processes - it is both an essential input and a critical output. Understanding moorland hydrology is therefore one of the major focuses of our research.
High annual precipitation is characteristic of upland ecosystems and is fundamental to maintaining the natural processes and distinctive biodiversity of moorlands. Peatlands in particular rely on water. When damaged by drivers such as artificial drainage, peat extraction or building works, peatland ecosystems dry out, cease to function effectively and become more vulnerable to fire, overgrazing, climate change and atmospheric pollutants (IUCN Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, 2011). Dry peat wastes away releasing carbon into the atmosphere and the surface water.
As 70% of UK drinking water originates from (often peat dominated) uplands, the condition of peatlands has a direct impact on our lives through the water that comes through our taps (IUCN Commission of Inquiry on Peatlands, 2011). [Right: Population density of the UK in spatial relation to the Peak District National Park.].
It is estimated that 450 billion litres of water is extracted per year from 55 reservoirs in the Peak District National Park, providing 4 million people with fresh drinking water every year (Defra Ecosystem Services of Peat - Phase 1). Water abstraction from reservoirs also provides water sources for other beneficiaries, including agriculture, other businesses and fire fighting. With lowlands predicted to become hotter and drier as a result of climate changes our dependence on upland water sources, including those in the Peak District, is predicted to increase.
Water companies (Severn Trent Water, United Utilities and Yorkshire Water) are under pressure to extract increasing amounts of sediment (particulate organic carbon (POC)) and colour (dissolved organic carbon (DOC)) from raw water supplies to make our water drinkable. The cost of ensuring that raw water is purified at treatment works around the Peak District in line with legal Drinking Water Standards is extremely expensive.
In Bamford Catchment alone, Severn Trent Water spend at least £2000 per week during the summer months to remove sediment from raw water – in winter, when sediment loads are higher, this cost can increase to more than £4000 per week. Between April 2010 and March 2011 £160,000 was spent on removing 11,500 tonnes of sediment from raw water to meet drinking water standards (Courtesy of STW). If upland peatlands continue to degrade these figures are set to increase. Monitoring the effectiveness of restoration works allows us to inform financial decisions of how best to reduce treatment costs downstream by tackling the problem at its source and promoting sustainable use.
By monitoring the quality and quantity of surface water and the height of the water table at intact, degraded and conserved sites throughout water catchments we are researching the impact of peat condition on the hydrological cycle. This includes assessing how re-vegetation improves the quality of downstream water supplies. Protecting our water sources by improving the environmental conditions of river catchments (as outlined in the EU Water Framework Directive) is a key focus of our monitoring and research projects, including:
- Upland Hydrology Group
- Kinder Catchment Project
- Bamford Catchment Project
- EA Water Quality Project
Research Note - Soil and Water Conservation; Opportunities to Combat Climate Change
Research Note - Peak District Moorland Stream Survey
Research Note - Heavy Metal Pollution in Eroding Peak District Moorlands
Research Report - Water Tables in Peak District Blanket Peatlands