Written evidence submitted by Southern Water (SH0039)




  1. Southern Water provides water and wastewater services to around 4.7 million customers. We’re lucky to operate in a region which includes two national parks, four areas of outstanding natural beauty, 14 rivers (including world-renowned chalk streams) and 83 bathing waters. Our vision is to deliver a resilient water future for the region. We need to face up to many challenges, including the effects of climate change and the need to reduce our own environmental impact.
  2. We’re working closely with our catchment partners (including farmers and other land managers) on nature-based solutions to manage potential risks to water quality and quantity and reduce the need for expensive end-of-pipe treatment processes. By using more nature-based approaches, alongside traditional engineering solutions, we can deliver a more resilient service and wider benefits for people and nature. It can also provide better value in the long term, helping to keep water bills more affordable.
  3. Encouraging good soil health is an essential part of this work. In our priority catchments, our work includes:
  4. More information can be found on our website:



Southern Water’s response to call for evidence


How can the Government measure progress towards its goal of making all soils sustainably managed by 2030? What are the challenges in gathering data to measure soil health and how can these barriers be overcome?

  1. Indicators of healthy soil function can, in part, be measured by the impacts of soil management on water quality. Aquatic ecological health and physio-chemical quality are indicators of, for example, agricultural land management practices. As such, existing water quality targets can be reframed in the context of looking at soil sustainability. Setting additional and more ecological based aquatic system targets would give the opportunity to create eutrophication targets that allow us to demonstrate the actual status of receiving water courses and wetlands. This could also encourage soil focused nature-based solutions that build natural resilience and nutrient cycling.
  2. One important challenge for measuring soil health itself will be that of setting a baseline for improvements to be measured against. From a specific soils perspective, baselining soil health parameters such as organic matter, structure, chemistry will be critical. Thought should be given to remote sensing technologies that can cover large spatial areas at reduced costs.
  3. Greater scrutiny of “soil carbon sequestration” for offsetting is important, since some organic inputs may only provide temporary carbon sequestration.


Do current regulations ensure that all landowners/land managers maintain and/or improve soil health? If not, how should they be improved?

  1. Regulating soil health would mean a monitoring programme for soil, based on decided key parameters such as carbon, chemicals and ecology. We can view our river health monitoring as a model that can be applied to soils.
  2. There is a lack of regulations surrounding soil health. Farming rules for water and NVZs are indirectly related to soil health.
  3. Encouraging catchment management approaches and the use of Nature Based Solutions through funded regulated processes will ensure land owner/manager buy in. Working on frameworks for novel funding mechanisms to protect and build soil natural capital would also incentivise investment.


Will the standards under Environmental Land Management schemes (ELMs) have sufficient ambition and flexibility to restore soils across different types of agricultural land? What are the threats and opportunities for soil health as ELMs are introduced?

  1. Farm payments should include options to improve soil sustainability such as cover crops and appropriate cultivation techniques or grass leys. These methods are part of the toolbox used by Southern Water in sensitive catchments.


What changes do we need to see in the wider food and agriculture sector to encourage better soil management and how can the Government support this transition?

  1. An ambition for reducing nutrient pollution from soils in agricultural catchments will strengthen our ability to address catchment-based risks. The Catchment Based Approach is supported by Southern Water. Agricultural activities pose a risk to water supply by impacting on water quality, including nitrate levels.
  2. We are committed to supplying high-quality drinking water, and the level of treatment needed for it to reach this standard depends on the quality of the water source and, by extension, the management of soils. The more water quality is impacted by human activity, the more we have to treat it. This increases the costs to our customers, requires more chemicals, uses more energy and increases our carbon footprint. It is better for our customers, society and the environment if we manage the causes of water quality issues rather than treat the symptoms.


What does the UK Government need to do to tackle other stressors on soil health such as soil contamination?

  1. The input of contaminants into soil could be better managed. For example, plastics enter agricultural soils from a number of pathways, each of which have varying levels of regulatory scrutiny. One of these pathways is microplastic in the sludge bioproduct from water industry wastewater treatment. The benefits of spreading this biosolids onto agricultural soils is clear in terms of carbon and nutrients. However, more work needs to be done to understand how to gain these benefits whilst removing the risks from, i.e., microplastics. Resourcing research and infrastructure could enable this circular economy opportunity.
  2. In southern Waters response to the Farming Rules for Water consultation email, 2020, we stated the following.

Land application is currently seen as the best practicable environmental option for recycling biosolids by the UK Government, if this became unviable in the long term this could incentivise the large scale adoption of EfW/incinerator technologies within the UK water industry at a significant cost to consumers and poorer environmental outcomes. As well as representing poor value for money in comparison to land spreading, incineration also risks creating a wider range of negative effects on the environment and is therefore a less preferable option. There has so far been no opportunity for water companies to prepare for this outcome and it is simply not achievable without a well thought out and well-funded national infrastructure strategy. Without being able to recycle biosolids to agricultural land during the autumn, water companies would in the short term be forced to haul materials for longer distances and increasingly compete for diminishing landbank. This would also cause a significant increase to our operating costs and carbon impact whilst enhancing the risk of air pollution, odour and greenhouse gas emissions.

  1. A more streamlined process to bring new products to market (e.g. recovered salts from waste, biochar etc.) could be used to tackle stressors, whilst ensuring benefits from those products.
  2. In addition we would advocate the tackling of pollutants at source. For Water Companies this means looking upstream of wastewater treatment works and reducing inputs of, e.g., plastics and pharmaceuticals.

February 2023