FREEDOM: Forecasting Risk to upland water treatment assets from the Environmental Exacerbation of Dissolved Organic Matter levels.

Lead Research Organisation: NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
Department Name: Water Resources (Lancaster)


The water industry faces intensifying risks to its water treatment systems from rising dissolved organic matter (DOM) concentrations in upland raw water supplies. This is leading to rising treatment costs, drinking water quality breaches, and threats to existing infrastructure. Scottish Water (SW), the industrial partner in this proposal, working with CEH, aim to address this challenge by developing an entirely new approach to understanding, managing, and planning responses to DOM increases over the next 50 years in response to environmental change. This represents a radical departure from the current water industry focus on 'managing away' rising DOM levels in supply catchments through upland restoration, which has had only limited success.

Risks and costs of rising DOM levels are widespread. They affect other water companies, including United Utilities, Welsh Water and Irish Water, who, alongside SW and academic partners (Universities of Glasgow and Leeds), will form the Project Advisory Board and ensure continued relevance and impact of the project.

The project will build on a modelling framework developed by CEH and harness new scientific understanding to equip SW with: 1) state-of-the-art knowledge of the consequences of future environmental change for DOM levels; 2) a web-based Decision Support System (DSS) with which to anticipate where and when treatment-related thresholds are most likely to be breached; 3) the ability to more efficiently manage water treatment assets; and, 4) a robust, long-term strategic basis for sustainable catchment planning and optimised infrastructure investment. By developing these capabilities CEH will provide SW with tools to optimise mitigation (e.g. land-use interventions) and adaption (e.g. infrastructure investment) strategies.

Proposed activities and (respective Work Packages) include: finalisation of SW needs and collation of SW data in a project database (WP1); development of an existing model framework to enable forecasting of future DOM quality, quantity and Key Performance Indicators (WP2); model implementation, focussed on circa 100 SW supply catchments (WP3), generation of a spatially explicit model of current and future DOM concentrations across the UK uplands according to climate change and air pollution scenarios (WP4); and, development of the DSS incorporating web-based tools, to provide a front-end for model outputs for use by SW, and enable forecasting of future annual average and seasonal extreme raw water DOM concentrations and quality, and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) (WP5). Additional funding from SW will support collection of new data to assist in model parameterisation and testing.

CEH will work with SW to implement the prototype DSS, initially for a subset of 'exemplar' sites to test and subsequently showcase the application of the tool, before scaling up to the full set of catchments from WP2. Consequences for SW's KPIs will then be assessed for a range of environmental scenarios and mitigation strategies. Results will be disseminated by a CEH in a series of briefing notes to SW and through the DSS directly. Exemplar studies will be presented to the wider water industry at the end-of-project dissemination meeting. At this point other water industry partners will be given the opportunity to engage in a future beta-test of the DSS, and work more closely with CEH and each other in developing further iterations and functionality.
Ultimately, the project aims to transform approaches to rising DOM across the UK water industry, and potentially internationally.

Project duration will be 18 months. During this time, SW will independently fund a parallel project of new data collection that will help to strengthen the empirical basis and parameterisation of the model to support future use. The total cost of the project, at 80%FEC will be £135,595, with £75,000 from SW to support supplementary sampling.

Planned Impact

The overall outcome of the project will be a complete overhaul of the water industry's approach to managing the risk of rising DOM, from one currently based on short-term, localised, reactive strategies to a much longer-term, scientifically-informed and business-led approach.
The benefits of the project to Scottish Water and the wider industry will be both immediate and direct, through access to a co-designed Decision Support System, and more gradual through consolidation of newly forged close working relationships between Scottish Water, CEH and our other industry and academic partners that will extend considerably beyond the duration of the project, through knowledge sharing and transfer mechanisms, joint studentships, and on-going research.

The primary output from the project will be the development of a co-designed web-based Decision Support System (DSS), underpinned by NERC science and informatics expertise. This will, for the first time, provide Scottish Water with the capability to predict and respond to:
1) Future DOM trajectories and extremes at current/potential future plant locations.
2) Changing chemical properties of DOM that affect treatability.
3) Catchments at most and least risk of worsening water quality.
4) The extent to which a range of catchment management options may be able to mitigate risk at specific locations.

The DSS will, therefore, enable more strategic planning, by informing industry when future investments relating to water quality issues may be required, e.g. within the next 10 or 50 years, and enable the industry to develop resilience to future climate and other environmental changes. By informing decisions on where and when to introduce catchment based solutions or new treatment assets, the project could result, over the next 50 years, in savings to the industry, and consequently to water customers, amounting to hundreds of millions of pounds.

Although Scottish Water faces particular challenges, all UK water utilities that source water from upland catchments (e.g. United Utilities, Yorkshire Water, Welsh Water, Southwest Water, Northumbrian Water, Northern Ireland Water), as well as Irish Water, face the same threat of rising DOM levels, as is indicated in the attached Letters of Support. While this project will develop the DSS to inform Scottish Waters' decision making specifically, wider co-design is ensured by the involvement of United Utilities, Welsh Water and Irish Water on the Project Advisory Board. Representatives from all interested companies will be invited to the project dissemination meeting, where they will be given the opportunity to become involved in further testing and development of the DSS in ways that may best meet their individual DOM treatment priorities. Promotion by web-based conferencing of the outcomes of the project by the Water Research Foundation will bring the outcomes of the project to an international audience and could go on to influence approaches to managing DOM increases in other parts of the world.
Description Our review of the scientific literature demonstrated that a range of catchment management activities, including peat drainage and drain blocking, revegetation, forest management and moorland burning have all been proposed as having the potential to influence Dissolved Organic Matter concentrations in runoff. However, evidence for the efficacy of various interventions on DOM concentrations and fluxes, is often conflicting. Field studies have rarely been conducted at sufficient spatial scales/and or duration for long-term effects on DOM concentrations at the point of abstraction to be evaluated reliably. Disturbance of peat soils during planting and felling of coniferous forests is often found to raise DOM concentrations at least temporarily, but the duration of such effect is less clear. Lakes and reservoirs act both to remove the DOM contributed by catchment soils, and to produce DOM in reservoirs during algal growth. Actions to reduce nutrient inputs may be one of the most effective catchment-based approaches to reducing DOM levels in source waters.

New chemistry data, generated using Scottish Water co-funding over the course of the FREEDOM project, revealed a clear (declining) south to north gradient in non-marine sulphate concentration. This reflects the historical legacy of atmospheric sulphur deposition and proximity to what were once major pollution sources, such as coal burning power stations. The still elevated non-marine sulphate concentrations in the more polluted areas to the south are expected to gradually decline over time, and this should drive further slight increases in DOM in this region.

Monthly monitoring of peatland streams in the Flow Country demonstrated that Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC) and Total Dissolved Nitrogen (TDN) concentrations draining forested catchments were significantly higher than those draining non-forested catchments. The DOC in the forested catchments was also found to be less coloured and therefore less treatable with coagulants.

Intensive monitoring of seven reservoirs revealed that DOC concentrations were higher in the outlets than inlets at sites where there was a large draw down in soluble reactive phosphorus concentration. This suggests that algal growth in these reservoirs, driven by the availability of phosphorus, is resulting in significant within-lake production of DOC.

The main deliverable from the project, the Decision Support Tool (DST), is founded on a set of algorithms that predict long-term future change in DOM in response to anticipated future reductions in acidic pollutants in the 30 SW source waters. The algorithms predict future change in Total Organic Carbon Concentration on the basis of predicted change in pollutant sulphate concentration. The algorithms underpinning the DST are written in the R programming language. The R code has been provided to SW, together with the Microsoft Power BI-based visual interface that draws from the R code. The code is annotated to enable SW operatives with only limited understanding of R to update the DST as further data become available.

The primary output from the R code is the projection of future TOC long-term trends up to 2060, with seasonal variation and extremes (i.e. 95th percentiles) superimposed. The DST also provides spatial overviews of current TOC concentrations, and expected amounts of change in TOC between the current day and 2060.

A notable outcome of the modelling approach, illustrated by the DST, is that future increases in DOM across the 30 source waters as a consequence of any further reductions in acid pollutants will be modest, relative to changes over the last few decades. They will also be largely confined to catchments in the south of the country. Providing the appropriate supporting data are collected, this approach can be applied to other water sources across Scotland and further afield.

Scottish Water are now incorporating the FREEDOM DST within the company's water treatment systems analysis, where it is contributing to assessments of future viability of DOM treatment assets.

The DST is configured so that additional effects from, for example, local scale catchment interventions, could be appended to the "moving DOM baseline" in future providing sufficient confidence has first been achieved in determining the size and direction of the effect.

The capability of the DST is now being further developed to incorporate effects of climate change in a new project named FREEDOM-BCCR (Building Climate Change Resilience). The project also has an emphasis on building a climate change-focussed community of scientists and water industry practitioners.
Exploitation Route The DST has been developed primarily to address potential changes in Dissolved Organic Matter in Scottish Water's upland drinking sources, but the approach has wider national and international application. In the current UKRI SPF FREEDOM-BCCR project the tool is being further developed to incorporate potential impacts of climate change and is being tested across a range of water companies including Scottish Water, United Utilities, Yorkshire Water and Welsh Water. The aim is that the tool can be configured to inform upland water quality management in any region where water quality is influenced by organic matter derived by organic rich soils.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment

Description At the FREEDOM-focussed Scottish Water science conference in Edinburgh in October 2019, Scottish Waters Senior Process engineer explained to an audience of company operatives, Scottish Government representatives and environmental scientists how the company is now incorporating the FREEDOM Decision Support Tool (DST) within the company's water treatment systems analysis, where it is contributing to assessments of future viability of Dissolved Organic Matter treatment assets.The DST is now being applied in the UKRI SPF FREEDOM-BCCR project to predict long-term DOM change in source waters belonging to other project partners including United Utilities and Welsh Water and determine the economic impact of having advanced warning of the timing and geographical extent of future increases.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

Description NERC Strategic Priorities Fund - Climate Change Resilience
Amount £251,502 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S016937/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 01/2020
Title FREEDOM Decision Support Tool 
Description As a major FREEDOM project deliverable, we have developed, and provided Scottish Water with, a computer-based decision support tool that provides them with predictions of future trajectories of dissolved organic matter (DOM) in a range of their source water reservoirs. The tool is based on algorithms that predict changes in DOM as a consequence of the predicted future change in water electrical conductivity - a response to expected future reductions in acid pollutants. Electrical conductivity is determined from recently collected measurements of water electrical conductivity, sulphate and chloride concentration. The modelling approach is set out in the internal report to Scottish Water and will also be written up as a scientific publication in a water industry-focused journal. In the FREEDOM-BCCR project we are developing the model to incorporate the expected impact of future climate change on DOM concentrations in these waters. The focus here is on assessing differences between catchments in their responses to variations in antecedent temperature, precipitation and soil moisture and relating these to catchment characteristics. The aim is to be able to determine likely climate sensitivity on the basis of information such as soil type, land cover type and water residence time. 
Type Of Material Computer model/algorithm 
Year Produced 2020 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact At Scottish Waters FREEDOM-focused Science Conference in October 2019, a Senior Process Engineer at Scottish Water set out how the Decision Support Tool was now being integrated within the company's water treatment systems analysis, and contributing to assessments of future viability of DOM treatment assets. 
Description Involvement of water companies and academics on the FREEDOM project Steering Group. 
Organisation Scottish Water
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution Our research team is conveying scientific insight and ideas in the field of predicting change in dissolved organic matter levels to a team of Scottish Water specialists in addition to representatives from United Utilities, Welsh Water, Irish Water and scientists from Glasgow and Leeds University,
Collaborator Contribution Our Scottish Water partners and steering group representatives from United Utilities, Welsh Water, Irish Water are providing us with a clearer idea of the practical challenges they face with regard to this treatment issue and are guiding development of the predictive tool. Our academic colleagues have been serving a very important role challenging some of our assumptions and providing ideas from their perspectives.
Impact No outputs to date. A draft literature review is being prepared for publication and an early prototype of the predictive tool. The final project meeting was held in Edinburgh in October 2019 on the day following Scottish Water's Science Conference that focused on the FREEDOM project.
Start Year 2017
Description Scottish Water support for FREEDOM tool development 
Organisation Scottish Water
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Public 
PI Contribution The CEH team have been working with Scottish Water in the collection and analysis of water samples to help in the development of understanding of factors influencing temporal and spatial variation in dissolved organic matter concentrations.
Collaborator Contribution Scottish Water have provided the financial resources for CEH to conduct intensive sampling of seven reservoirs and have also provided water chemistry and associated data for a much wider range of their water sources, to help in the development of the FREEDOM tool.
Impact No outputs to date.
Start Year 2017
Description Presentation at 12th Conference of the UK Network on Potable Water Treatment & Supply (2019): Cranfield University 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This conference was the twelfth in an annual series focusing on drinking water production from source to tap. Attendees of the conference have the opportunity to talk to decision makers from water companies and leading researchers, with speakers drawn from both academia and industry. Don Monteith gave a presentation summarising the FREEDOM and FREEDOM-BCCR projects with specific reference to climate change impacts on Dissolved Organic Matter. The talk was originally to be given by Professor Pippa Chapman who is a member of the FREEDOM Advisory group and a partner under FREEDOM-BCCR. Monteith and Chapman distributed a questionnaire at the workshop to determine the audience's perception of various climate change risks to drinking water sources. Approximately 40 participants responded, and the outcome has been used to inform later project workshops.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation on the FREEDOM project at a session on 'Current status and future developments in modelling water quality in catchments' at the Twenty65 annual meeting. 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact Twenty65 ( is an EPSRC Grand Challenge Consortium Project on the future of water management (2016 - 2065), and which involves research by 6 university groups and industrial partners. One of the key themes concerns water supply catchments and the link with raw water quality and treatment, with particular focus on natural organic matter and organic-related nutrients (org-N, org-P), and this is led by Imperial College (Nigel Graham), Reading University (Jo Clark) and Exeter University (Richard Brazier). The 2018 Twenty-65 annual conference took place in Manchester on the 17th and 18th April 2018. A 3-hour workshop was organised for the "catchment" theme" on the 'Current status and future developments in modelling water quality in catchments'. I have a presentation on the FREEDOM project to a mixed audience of academics and water industry professionals.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Presentation on the FREEDOM project to the 2018 Scottish Water Catchment Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The activity was a talk to a conference organised by Scottish Water which was was held to communicate to Scottish Water operatives, and particularly catchment managers, the various pieces of recent or current scientific research that have a bearing on Scottish Water's business. The audience comprised circa 80% Scottish Water staff and 20% researchers, and included considerable two way exchange of views and ideas, including potential directions for future research.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Scottish Water Science Conference 2019: the FREEDOM project 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact The conference was hosted by Scottish Water and was focused on the the outcomes of the FREEDOM project and the aims of the FREEDOM-BCCR project. The meeting comprised circa 80 attendees with ~60% from the water industry (Scottish Water and 5 other UK water companies), and the rest a mix of academics, Scottish regulators, Scottish Government representatives, and other key stakeholders in Scotland with an interest in natural organic matter in drinking water supplies. The agenda included an introductory presentation by Scottish Water, a series of presentations by UKCEH staff (Don Monteith - project summary; Heidrun Feuchtmayer - Decision Support Tool; Amy Pickard - future research directions), and a follow up talk from Scottish Water's Senior Process Engineer who explained how the Decision Support Tool developed under FREEDOM was now being used by Scottish Water as an integral part of their larger water management evaluation system. It was explained that in the FREEDOM-BCCR project the Decision Support Tool would be further extended to incorporate effects of projected future changes in climate.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019