Scotland the Hydro Nation – lessons for the future of water management

Blog pot by Kathleen Stosch & Jonathan Fletcher (Hydro Nation Scholars)

How can we improve the value of Scotland’s water resources? What is the future of water management? What is a Hydro Nation?

These were some of the questions we tried to answer when we set out on a week-long road trip across Scotland this summer on our Hydro Nation scholarship scheme summer school. We are Scottish Government funded PhD students working on several

research projects with topics ranging from emergent waterborne pollutants to international law – all with water at their heart.

Our trip took us from the Forth of Tay, first into rolling hills and then steep glens, across the beautiful Scottish landscape, created by geological processes and shaped by glaciation. Alongour way we visited streams, lochs, canals, mills, water treatment works, and a distillery, revealing insights into the various uses for and pressures on our water resources.

In the example of acid rain we saw how research, policy and practice had to interact on an international scale to tackle the issue. And we saw how, over time, water management had to adapt to emerging water management issues, first with Victorian engineering to divert water from Loch Katrine to cholera-ridden Glasgow, and later through the treatment of drinking water. As we have found solutions to some problems, others emerged, however, sometimes as a consequence to an earlier solution, such as in the case of contamination from lead piping. From the trip two themes emerged in the story of Scotland’s water, one of hard engineering approach to water management and the other a softer more holistic way.

The hard engineering approach to water management is one that is characterised by cutting edge technology, highly specific design criteria and often invasive construction and management. For Scotland, hard engineering of water courses has been economically transformative. New Lanark world heritage site is a good example of how harnessing the energy of water to turn mills that mechanically drive weaving machinery, provided a livelihood for a local workforce. Similarly, the Forth and Clyde canal is an engineering feat that connected the Americas with mainland Europe enhancing trade in Scotland as a key network.

We are aware of the potential pollution and flow regulation from large scale industry from past and present engineering projects. However, with best management practises and appropriate regulation, tangible opportunities exist in 21st century Scotland to integrate hard-engineering approaches with wider social initiatives in the form of drawing investment and attention into socially deprived locations. The regeneration of the Forth and Clyde Canal at Pinkston with new housing, SUDS systems and a grey-water reuse community car wash provide social and sustainable benefits from engineered approaches.During the trip it also became apparent that we may in part be moving into the ‘digital age’ of water management. Drawing again on the example of regeneration of the Forth and Clyde Canal in Pinkston, part of the improvement scheme is to tackle flood management and assist Scottish water in increasing capacity in their infrastructure. Here, a computer system will use met office forecasts of precipitation to predict water storage requirements, then automatically transfer water from the Forth and Clyde Canal in advance to create up to 55km3 of additional storage for storm water. Similarly, in the raw water treatment works visited it automated processes are in place to accurately dose water with the required flocculant chemicals and to operate various water treatment phases throughout the works. Many of the group were surprised to find that Glencourse water treatment works supply over 500,000 people with water but is only staffed by 2-3 people.

In some cases, hard engineering approaches to water management can be necessary (i.e. large-scale water supply), but it is increasingly the case that this approach is not necessary completely one-dimensional as is the case with the Forth and Clyde canal project being socially regenerative whilst reducing flood risk elsewhere.As we have become better at reducing large sources of pollution, diffuse sources such as from rural or urban sources have become more prevalent in Scotland. A more holistic, catchment-based approach to water management has been taken in some places to tackle these diffuse issues. In the borders, we visited the Eddlestone Water, which has been remeandered from its formerly channelised form as part of a restoration programme aimed to alleviate below stream flooding, but also to offer benefits for in-stream ecology. Here we learned the importance of working together with local stakeholders and the multiple benefits that catchment management techniques can bring. The flood alleviation improvements are difficult to estimate, but the ecological status of the stream has been significantly improved after restoration, and salmon were travelling up it within weeks after the restoration.


Eddlestone Water (tributary to the R. Tweed) regeneration project – increased biodiversity and potentially reduced flood risk

When we visited Loch Leven we saw another example of a successful restoration project, however, here the reduction of nutrient inputs into the stream to improve water quality and reduce algal blooms took decades to achieve. Phosphorus from human waste water has been drastically removed in the catchment, both from a waster water treatment plan, but also through an ingenious 125% rule by the council which meant that new developments had to ensure that they offset the phosphorous they output and more, for example by replacing an old septic tank system on somebody else’s property. Although these efforts took a while to show an effect, partly due to legacy phosphorus in the loch’s sediments, the loch’s biodiversity is now recovering with algal blooms being much less prevalent and in increase in bird and plant numbers, with some species of plant returning to the loch for the first time after over a hundred years. An increase in plants and zooplankton has in turn increased fish numbers in the loch, which is world renowned for its brown trout. This has brought back anglers, and increased recreation around the loch, boosting the local economy.

Reflecting on the summer school it is apparent that water has economic, social and environmental value. Scotland’s water resources can maximised through appropriate management and above we have states the case for both hard engineering solutions and softer catchment management approaches. No one approach to water management can provide all the social and ecosystem service value required to nourish Scotland and supports its economic and natural ecosystems. A Hydro Nation must be like the people that inhabit it – diverse!