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Managing our water: Examples from the 2019 Dorset field trip

By Jaswanth Dadi, Kate Cullen, Kavita Upadhyay, WSPM ’19-’20

The sky was overcast and raindrops, emboldened by fierce winds, dashed against our faces. For the twenty-five new students from Oxford University’s MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management (WSPM) 2019-20 cohort, October 3, the first of the three-day induction field trip to Dorset was just as forecasted – cold and rainy. We were in Dorset to learn about what lay beneath the earth—chalk and water. The field trip was also an introduction to the many ways in which people – particularly in Dorset – view water and its uses.

First, we stopped at Wessex Water’s Groundwater Pumping Station at Friar Waddon. The pumping station made thunderous noises as boreholes that were dug deep into the earth sucked up the water resting in the underground chalk. The machines grunted and groaned as the water gushed to the surface to be cleaned and piped out to surrounding towns in Dorset. Wessex Water is a water supply and sewerage services company operational across southwest England. A quick look at the website flashes the words “value for money,” “investment,” “fair return”.[i] Through Wessex Waters’ lens, as a utility company, water is a commodity.

Inside Wessex Water’s Friar Waddon Groundwater Pumping Station, at Weymouth.
Photo Credit: Kavita Upadhyay

But, could water be more than a commodity? On October 4, we travelled to the ancient St. Augustine’s Well at Cerne Abbas, thirteen miles from the pumping station, to find out. A soft, serene stream that used to supply water to a local mill introduced itself to us as we chatted our way to the holy waters of St. Augustine’s Well, which is a chalk spring. Beside the spring are people’s prayers, adorning a tree in the form of colourful ribbons and folded papers. Around the world, water holds important religious, cultural and ecological value that cannot be quantified.


St. Augustine’s Well at Cerne Abbas
Photo Credit: Kavita Upadhyay

 

 

Standing in front of the tree, Professor David Bradley, a Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Oxford University Centre for the Environment (OUCE), spoke of the Well’s history. “You see, water is more than just a commodity,” he said, and our ears perked up. Suddenly, the narrative had shifted from water being perceived as a commodity to water being “more” than “just” that.

In Dorset, we were introduced to watercress, an aquatic plant used in salads and soups, the production of which is closely associated with the chalk streams central to Dorset. Dr Jocelyne Hughes, the WSPM Course Director, briefed us on how watercress was once harvested in winter by “traditional growers”. There are no traditional growers of watercress left in Dorset. Now, driven by the market, the plant is produced in Dorset mainly in the summer and imported from Spain, Portugal and Florida, USA, for the winter market. The commercial production is more water intensive than traditional methods, which creates significant strain of the unique chalk waters in the area. In Dorset, tradition has clearly been dumped for commerce.

From holy water and cultural traditions to ecological services and dependable utility services, our trip to Dorset illuminated the depth and breadth of how our society views and manages water. In the process, we found ourselves entangled in the perennial debate of whether water should be viewed as a commodity. If so, then to what extent? Also, how does the placing of water as a commodity or “more than” a commodity translate into water management? There were no easy answers.


[i] Wessex Water. “About Us: Our Purpose and Values.” Available at: https://www.wessexwater.co.uk/corporate/the-company/about-us/our-purpose-and-values

 

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Atlantic Salmon Management—An Ocean Away

By Ellen Kujawa, WSPM ’19-’20

Bright and early in early October, the new students of Oxford’s Water Science, Policy and Management MSc program gathered for a three-day intensive field trip to Dorset. I was most excited to learn about a familiar water management challenge from another region’s perspective: namely, Atlantic salmon research and management on the River Frome.

Until last week, I worked for a watershed nonprofit in the U.S. called the Lake Champlain Basin Program. At the time of Euro-American settlement in the Lake Champlain region, landlocked Atlantic salmon were plentiful in the lake and its tributaries; however, the prized sportfish was soon extirpated due to overfishing. Since then, Vermont, New York, and Quebec have spent decades, and millions of dollars, on expensive Atlantic salmon restoration efforts: constructing hatcheries, reintroducing a similar strain of landlocked salmon from nearby Sebago Lake in Maine, and conducting chemical treatments in the lake’s tributaries to decrease the population of parasitic, invasive sea lamprey. In 2017, when salmon began naturally spawning in several of the Lake’s tributaries for the first time in 150 years, it was a huge victory.

Atlantic salmon management in the U.K. is quite different: at our visit to the Freshwater Biological Association’s facility on the River Frome, we learned from Rasmus Lauridsen that Atlantic salmon have continued to spawn naturally on the river, and this spawning has been tracked since 1973 (one of the longest-term sources of salmon population data!). Salmon reproduction has decreased since the early 1990s at this location, and the reason for this decline is as-yet unclear. Interestingly, there is no need to manage (chemically or otherwise) for sea lamprey, as the species is native to the region and does not pose a serious threat to the Atlantic salmon population.

This contrast in management foci, challenges, and opportunities was fascinating to me: learning about issues that are personally familiar from a differing international perspective was actually one of the most attractive components of the WSPM program for me. Other incoming WSPM students have other areas of previous expertise: public health and epidemiology, journalism, and shipping and harbor management, to name a few, and I’m looking forward to hearing their comparative perspectives in the months to come as well as developing a working knowledge of subjects related to water that are new to me like groundwater management and geology.