The Garden Guide

Book: Landscape Planning and Environmental Impact Design: from EIA to EID
Chapter: Chapter 5 Reservoir planning and design

Gathering grounds for water storage

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Water gathering areas 

Gathering grounds are a historic example of single-purposism. In Britain, the most important influence on the liberalisation of water undertakings was the 1948 Ministry of Health Report of the Committee on Gathering Grounds, known as the Heneage Committee (Ministry of Health 1948:12). It was set up as a result of the pressures which also led to the enactment of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act (1949). Leonard Elmhirst, founder of The Dartington Trust, was a member of this Committee and simultaneously of the National Parks Committee and the Footpaths and Access Committee. The Heneage Report is a planning classic which deserves to be remembered with the Scott, Uthwatt and Hobhouse reports. It greatly encouraged the use of water authority land for recreation, afforestation and agriculture. The Gathering Grounds Committee researched the subject of public health fully, and made the following observations: (1) The Croydon typhoid epidemic of 1937ï¾­8 was caused by a contaminated well. It had nothing to do with reservoir water. (2) Of the 21 outbreaks of waterbourne disease between 1911 and 1937 which could be traced to water supplies, only one case resulted from a polluted reservoir. It was caused by 'a typhoid patient who was being nursed in a house whose waterï¾­closet drained into a small waterï¾­course which communicated with a small reservoir'. The water from the reservoir was not purified and the outbreak was not connected with public access. (3) Seagulls often cause reservoirs to be contaminated by sewage: 'These birds, which are protected by law, frequently develop the habit of spending their days feeding on sewage farms and migrating at night to some convenient stretch of clear water, often enough a reservoir, each with human sewage on its feet and in its gullet'. (4) Typhoid germs do not survive in open water and 'no case has been mentioned in this country where disease has been transmitted by the pollution of a large reservoir'. (5) Military exercises had taken place on gathering grounds and 'provided an experiment in large scale human access'. There were numerous 'instances of insanitary behaviour' on the part of the troops, but only one case of any observed effect upon the quality of the raw water. (6) Many water suppliers extract water from grossly polluted rivers and produce potable water by filtration and sterilisaion. (7) A number of authorities make 'imaginative objections' to the multiple use of gathering grounds, including 'the occasional presence of a defecating cow or dead sheep' and 'the presence of fish droppings and dead fish in the reservoir'. The Gathering Grounds Committee concluded that the water industry had 'overï¾­developed' its precautions and that the defences 'may stifle the life they are designed to protect' by 'seriously limiting facilities for healthy exercise and the production of wholesome food'. The Committee recommended that: 'there is no reason to exclude the public from gathering grounds'. The land should be 'put to the utmost agricultural use' and, if incapable of agricultural use, 'should if possible be afforested, but with due regard to amenity and the requirements of adjacent agriculture'. The Committee also recommended safeguards. They said human sewage and farmyard manure should be prevented from entering reservoirs and 'the public should be generally excluded from the banks of reservoirs and no bathing should be allowed. Fishing and boating may in some cases be allowed at the water undertaker's discretion but only under rigorous control'. The system of 'rigorous control' for fishing and boating was already practiced by the Bristol Waterworks Company, whose club members tended 'to display marked hostility to access by other persons and in effect perform the functions of unpaid wardens'. The above recommendations were made for reservoirs from which water is purified, and supplied to customers. The Committee said that for compensation reservoirs, used to maintain river flow in dry weather, no safeguards were necessary: 'there is no public health reason why fishing, bathing, boating and camping should not take place on the largest scale'. This still does not happen. The Gathering Grounds Committee also considered the question of deliberate vandalism. It was an occasional problem in 1948 and has become more serious. They advised that water suppliers 'are in much the same position as other landowners and should, in our opinion, be subject to whatever policy regarding access to mountains and moorland may be applicable to landowners in general'. This is an important principle of continuing relevance - which is still unregarded.