The Severn Trent Environmental Protection Scheme (STEPS) is the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the company’s hugely successful Farming for Water programme

10th June 2024

The Severn Trent Environmental Protection Scheme (STEPS) is the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the company’s hugely successful Farming for Water programme, working in partnership with thousands of farmers across its region to improve the quality of drinking water and help protect the local environment. This year marks the tenth anniversary of STEPS, and in this blog, its creator Jodie Rettino looks back at the successes and challenges of this unique collaboration.

There’s absolutely no reason why water companies and farmers can’t be the ‘dream team’ when it comes to improving water quality. It makes perfect sense to work together – we all use the water, and we all want it to be the best it can be. And that’s what STEPS is all about – working together for everyone's benefit. Through this scheme, we help landowners and farmers in our priority catchments make important changes on-farm, that positively impact what comes out of our taps, while at the same time helping farmers be more productive. It’s a win-win.

And our farmers certainly agree. That’s why more than 5,000 have chosen to work with us. If you’d have told me ten years ago that we’d be working with that many farmers, I wouldn’t have believed it. But it’s this willingness to work together, that has helped STEPS evolve and expand, leading us to increase the number of catchments where we work from 21 to 55. In the past ten years, we have awarded more than 2,100 grants that fund on-farm solutions to prevent pesticides, nitrates and cryptosporidium from reaching raw watercourses, and the benefits are evident. Our very first catchment, Tittesworth, is a testament to what STEPS can achieve. Previously, this lovely catchment had pesticide problems, but after a lot of investigations and modelling work, as well as time spent on the ground trialling solutions and collecting evidence, we gained some champion farmers who agreed to make changes on-farm. Since then, there’s not been a pesticide breach at the local water treatment works.

And that’s why I was brought into Severn Trent 15 years ago, to carry out catchment investigations and find ways to improve water quality. I spent the early days talking to groups such as Catchment Sensitive Farming and the local wildlife trusts to understand what they were doing and where there were gaps, so that we could set up some small trials and find supporting evidence on the ground that backed up our modelling work. I learnt very quickly what could be achieved just from talking to farmers. In the early days, we had no preconceived ideas about what we would offer or what would work, it was all about having conversations – one of our first targets was to engage with 90% of farmers in our priority catchments and for them to show they had improved knowledge of water quality. We just wanted to see if they would work with us, and they did, which is how STEPS evolved.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. At the beginning we got some pushback from farmers, I don’t think they believed that we were there to help – why would a water company want to help farmers? But over time, we managed to build up trust, we funded projects and had experts for them to talk to. Word got around and very quickly we started to grow the number of farmers looking to work with us, which was fantastic. However, the biggest challenge was securing the funding for STEPS and justifying this investment to our customers. I think it’s fair for people to ask, ‘why are you incentivising farmers to do the right thing?’ and ‘what are the benefits to me?’ But we had the data that showed these on-farm changes meant we didn’t have to put in a pesticide treatment or nitrate water treatment plants, saving money that could be invested elsewhere, all of which benefits our customers. For example, for every £1 we spend, we save between £2 and £20 in treatment costs, and our work with farmers is a huge part of our environmental narrative – all great news that we can share with everyone. And now, ten years later, customers seem happier about our work and understand the importance of STEPS.

But it doesn’t stop there. We are always looking at what more we can do, how we can build on the scheme and improve our offering. Even after ten years, STEPS continues to grow and evolve, it’s what I love most. We’re not restricted or tied to anything, so if we believe we could deliver greater benefits to the environment, water quality and farmers, by changing course or introducing a new way of working, we’re flexible enough to explore that change. It’s what excites me about this scheme. We have the knowledge and expertise of not only our office-based teams, but also our 20-strong agricultural advisors who speak with farmers daily, we have strong and valuable partnerships with local trusts and organisations, and we have a commitment from the business to be innovative and industry leading when it comes to improving water quality across our region. So, if you’re a farmer in one of our catchments and you’ve not taken advantage of STEPS, my question to you is ‘why not?’ - and I genuinely want to know. What can we do to convince you to work with us and help bring some more real benefits to not only your own business, but to everyone across the Severn Trent region.