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Water environment, resilience and adaptation to change

Work Package 1.2 - Water resources and flood risk management

Research Deliverable 
1.2.3 Water environment resilience and adaption to change
Leading Ideas 
Climate and the Environment


The role of resilience is particularly crucial in managing the impacts of environmental changes (i.e. climate change, land use change) for example to prioritise mitigation measures to tackle greatest risks first. Aquatic ecosystems can experience multiple and interacting pressures and respond suddenly to environmental change, sometimes flipping to a new equilibrium. However, our understanding of resilience to environmental change is limited due to the difficulty in detecting ecological stability across pressure gradients at various spatio-temporal scales. Lack of knowledge on how key ecosystem functions relate to multiple stressors and drivers of change (notably climate & land use) therefore constrains effective resilience-based responses. This has implications for meeting current policy targets and prioritisation of adaptation actions to avoid future loss of function and service. Furthermore, regulatory measures have often been implemented in isolation rather than maximising potential synergies for maintaining resilient functioning ecosystems.

The need to evaluate resilience at national-level thus defines a high-level requirement to assess present and future risk and adaptive capacity for catchments across Scotland.

Aim of Research

To evaluate the capacity of water resources to adapt to changing environmental and socio-economic conditions, in order to maintain key functions, goods and services (resilience) 

This RD addresses one of the fundamental research questions of the programme: How resilient are Scotland’s natural assets to climate change and other risks (invasive non-native species (INNS), pollution, etc.), and what are the key interventions to make them more resilient or to protect them from further harm? To do this, RD 1.2.3 considers components of natural and managed water systems (and their interactions), their responses to multiple stressors, aspects of risk vs resilience and control measures. Using case studies, we explore (a) the concept of multiple stressors acting on a water body now and under future scenarios; (b) the provision of goods and services through the water environment; (c) natural resilience of the water environment that we can characterise and utilise in managing change. This natural resilience may be utilised as an alternative or complement to conventional management approaches. We may also need to manage this resilience with engineering (e.g. flood defence; water treatment) and accompany it with actions to enhance community resilience.

The research in RD 1.2.3 focusses on:

  1. Catchment typologies of risk and resilience to enable better understanding of grouped behaviours in waterbody sensitivities and responses to multiple stressors and how we may combine catchment spatial data in meaningful ways related to functions.
  2. Wastewater effluents in terms of ecosystem resilience to effluents, sustainable treatments for trace contaminants, and novel circular systems for wastewater treatment.
  3. Drinking waters, for example tracing presence and sources of key pathogen risks to drinking waters.
  4. River temperature and its impacts for aquatic ecology.


2018 / 2019
2018 / 2019

Catchment typologies of risk and resilience, which will help to quantify, group and predict different responses were investigated further, including the development and application of novel methods ranging from laboratory experiments to modelling approaches. We also continued monitoring of environmental variables at different field sites allowing robust analysis of the water environment, its resilience and adaptation to change (e.g. biomass growth and nutrient concentration in the constructed wetland at Dinnet and river temperature in the Gairn catchment).

The research conducted this year has resulted in a range of important findings in the individual projects. For example, risk factors to chemical and ecological responses in waterbodies have been identified (e.g. in terms of septic tank risk profiles in river catchments and by DNA extraction of protozoan parasites). Laboratory experiments have been conducted to quantify the removal of contaminants (such as pharmaceuticals and heavy metals) by biosorbents. In addition, analysis of monitoring data has been combined with water balance modelling to enhance process-understanding in the constructed wetland at Dinnet. Further, process-based and statistical modelling has been combined with trend analysis to explore long-term changes in river temperature and its drivers using a 105-year citizen science river temperature record of the river Spey. A model has also been developed to investigate the temporal pattern of high-resolution river temperature data at the outlet of the river Gairn.


2017 / 2018
2017 / 2018

Collectively, work in the RD has progressed ways of looking at risk vs resilience in the translation of pressures on the environment through risk factors to chemical and ecological responses in waterbodies. This has involved some conceptual strengthening via our cases studies, namely: river ecosystem susceptibility to diffuse and point source pollution; management of effluents in closed loop wastewater systems; temperature related stress to stream ecology; the factor of riparian condition in alleviating or adding to risk of impaired water quality. Two further case studies are in earlier development stages: improving pesticide and pharmaceutical data for rivers for risk evaluation; improving drinking water safety planning for the water industry to manage risk.


  • Evidence dissemination: A talk was given at the Rank Prize Funds meeting at Grasmere in Cumbria in the Symposium on “Soil Organisms and Pollutants and their Consequences for Human Health”, The talk addressed how to assess the human health risks associated with the use of reclaimed water for irrigation of amenity land and food crops.
  • Catchment typologies approaches underpin developing SRP and CREW work and international collaborations: Research between RD1.2.2, 1.2.3 and CEH conceptualises how landscape structure, soils etc. underpin how waters respond to environmental pressures. This framework is being used in the CREW project Eco-P 2 project, SRP phosphorus modelling, a recent paper on alleviating eutrophication, international links with BIOWATER project and a session at the EGU conference, Vienna. A report was delivered to stakeholders (SEPA, SNH, Forest Research, Scottish Water, Marine Scotland, SG), following a workshop in spring 2017, establishing the needs and development pathway of these concepts and applications.
  • Records from the past century show that Scottish rivers are warming: Research in RD1.2.3 combined citizen science, through archived long-term records of water temperature taken by fisheries and estates, with high resolution scientific data and developed statistical methods to provide evidence that Scottish rivers are warming. A factsheet outlines river temperature changes and recommendations to make rivers more resilient to potential future warming.
2016 / 2017
2016 / 2017

We have been developing approaches for typologies of catchments as a way of grouping behaviours with respect to ways that waterbody sensitivity factors translate catchment risks (pollution pressures etc.) into impacts. This has been widely validated with stakeholders. The pressures and responses have been selected to serve the wider work and comprise: eutrophication impacts, temperature impacts on aquatic ecology and drinking water quality. As part of this, key datasets have been attained working alongside SEPA, for point sources, livestock number and sensitivity factors like riparian structure. New evidence provision has involved a package of work on effluents, septic tanks and larger wastewater sources, environmental tracing of effluents and novel control measures for effluents (working with Scottish Water) and river temperature effects.


  • New experiments started at the the constructed wetland at Dinnet. For this purpose, the existing vegetation has been harvested and locally available gravel has been chosen as standard material in the beds. It was decided to trial novel "add on" media in additional modules discrete from the main beds.
  • Structures to represent risk vs resilience in catchment systems are being developed within RD1.2.3 with links to developing risk modelling (for phosphorus) in RD1.2.2 and using expertise from CEH supporting waterbody ecological impacts. A Catchment Typologies of Risk and Resilience report has been delivered to stakeholders (SEPA, SNH, Forest Research, Scottish water, Marine Scotland, SG) who supported a workshop in spring 2017, establishing the needs and pathway of development.
  • WP staff met with representatives of the drinking water industry and regulators (Scottish Water, the Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland, and SEPA) and agreed a pathway to integrate research on understanding, communicating and tackling risks to drinking water supply.

Future Activities

Catchment typologies of risk and resilience will be derived for a set of national river catchments towards establishing sensitivity classes for good ecological status and other end-points relevant for stakeholders (nuisance algae, phosphorus and invertebrate WFD status).

Measures against water pollution will be investigated further by laboratory experiments, analysis of field data, and modelling approaches. Laboratory experiments will be conducted to quantify the efficiency of biosorbents to remove pharmaceuticals from waste water treatment plant effluents. The effect of riparian restoration on geomorphic and chemical conditions in the Tarland catchment will be explored by comparing monitoring data of restored versus control reaches. The potential of the constructed wetland at Dinnet to combine wastewater treatment and production of biomass for energy generation will be studied by experimental tests of different hydraulic regimes and modelling to inform optimal system design.

Sources of zoonotic parasites from livestock and wildlife species will be identified by detection, speciation and genotyping of parasites in a second catchment. The results of this analysis and the risk from zoonotic parasites will be discussed with relevant stakeholders. 

River temperature research will focus on spatial heterogeneity and its controls using (a) thermal UAV remote sensing and (b) statistical analysis and modelling of high-temporal resolution river temperature monitoring data at various locations in the Gairn catchment. Long-term river temperature changes in catchments across Scotland will be investigated.

Selected Outputs


Conference contributions:

Li Y., McKenzie C., Zhang Z.L., Taggart M., Lu Y.L., Gibb S. (Poster, 2016) Optimising the Removal of Steroid Hormones and Pharmaceutical and Personal Care Products (PPCPs) from aqueous media by using Low Cost Biosorbents. 17th European Meeting on Environmental Chemistry (EMEC), Inverness, Scotland. 30 November - 2 December, 2016.

Journal publications:

Richards, S., Paterson, E., Withers, P.J.A., Stutter, M., 2016. Septic tank discharges as multi-pollutant hotspots in catchments. Sci. Total Environ. 542, 854–863.

Richards, S., Withers, P.J.A., Paterson, E., McRoberts, C.W., Stutter, M., 2016. Temporal variability in domestic point source discharges and their associated impact on receiving waters. Sci. Total Environ. 571, 1275–1283.

Richards, S., Withers, P.J.A., Paterson, E., McRoberts, C.W., Stutter, M., 2017. Potential tracers for tracking septic tank effluent discharges in watercourses. Environ. Pollut. 228, 245–255.


Conference contributions:

Pohle, I., Glendell, M., Stutter, M., Helliwell, C.: An approach to predict water quality in data-sparse catchments using hydrological catchment similarity. Geophysical Research Abstracts Vol. 19, EGU2017-9837, 2017

Stutter, M., Ibiyemi, A., Wang, C.: Catchment structure that supports organic matter providing a natural control on rising river nutrient concentrations. Geophysical Research Abstracts Vol. 19, EGU2017-15993, 2017

Stutter, M., Richards, S., Watson, H.: Relationships between soil test P and drain water P leaching: An initiative combining science and farmer knowledge. LuWQ 2017, Land Use and Water Quality, The Hague, 29 May – 1 June 2017.

Troldborg, M.; Duckett, D.; Allan, R.; Hastings, E.; Hough, R.L. (2017). Developing standards for irrigation with reclaimed water: Quantification of human health risks and associated uncertainties. Rank Prize Funds Symposium, Grasmere, UK, May 15-18 2017.

Journal publications:

Richards, S., Withers, P.J.A., Paterson, E., McRoberts, C.W, Stutter, M., 2017. Removal and attenuation of sewage effluent combined tracer signals of phosphorus, caffeine and saccharin in soil. Environmental Pollution 223, 277-285.

Stutter, M.I., Cains, J., 2017. Changes in aquatic microbial responses to C-substrates with stream water and sediment quality related to land use pressures. Chemosphere 184, 548–558.

Stutter, M., Dawson, J.J.C., Glendell, M., Napier, F., Potts, J.M., Sample, J., Vinten, A., Watson, H., 2017. Evaluating the use of in-situ turbidity measurements to quantify fluvial sediment and phosphorus concentrations and fluxes in agricultural streams. Sci. Total Environ. 607–608, 391–402.

Troldborg, M., Duckett, D., Allan, R., Hastings, E., Hough, R.L., 2017. A risk-based approach for developing standards for irrigation with reclaimed water. Water Res. 126, 372–384.


Helliwell, R. et al., 2018. Records from the past century show that Scottish rivers are warming. Factsheet to Scottish Government.


Conference contributions:

Stevenson, C.; Salome, M.; Avery, L.; Hough, R.L; Stockan, J.; Anderson, P.; Beesley, L.: Demonstrating the potential of constructed wetlands for combined wastewater treatment and biomass production: a case study in Scotland. 16th IWA International Conference on Wetland Systems for Water Pollution Control, Valencia, Spain, 3 September - 4 October 2018.        

Pohle, I., Helliwell, R., Aube, C., Gibbs, S., Spencer, M., Spezia. L.: Citizen Science Evidence from the Past Century Shows that Scottish Rivers are Warming. American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting 2018, 10-14 December 2018, Washington DC, USA

Pohle, I., Helliwell, R.C., Aube, C., Spezia, L., Gibbs, S. and Spencer, M.: Assessment of long-term changes in hydrology and river temperature to inform mitigation measures to enhance resilience of river systems. IUKWC Workshop: Advancing Drought Monitoring, Prediction, and Management Capabilities, Lancaster, United Kingdom, 2018.

Pohle, I., Helliwell, R.C., Aube, C., Spezia, L., Gibbs, S. and Spencer, M.: Citizen science evidence from the past century shows that Scottish Rivers are warming. Climate Change Week Edinburgh, 2018.

Pohle, I., Helliwell, R., Aube, C., Spezia, L., Gibbs, S., Spencer, M. 2019. Can citizen science, conventional monitoring and inferred data be used to investigate the impact of hydrology on river temperatures in a rural catchment in Scotland? Geophysical Research Abstracts Vol. 20, EGU2018-14732-1, 2018.

Journal publications:

Li, Y., Taggart, M.A., McKenzie, C., Zhang, Z., Lu, Y., Pap, S., Gibb, S., 2019. Utilizing low-cost natural waste for the removal of pharmaceuticals from water: Mechanisms, isotherms and kinetics at low concentrations. J. Clean. Prod. 227, 88–97.

Pohle, I., Helliwell, R., Aube, C., Gibbs, S., Spencer, M., Spezia, L., 2019. Citizen science evidence from the past century shows that Scottish rivers are warming. Sci. Total Environ. 659, 53–65.

Richards, S., Dawson, J., Stutter, M., 2019. The potential use of natural vs commercial biosorbent material to remediate stream waters by removing heavy metal contaminants. J. Environ. Manage.

Stutter, M.I., Graeber, D., Evans, C.D., Wade, A.J., Withers, P.J.A., 2018. Balancing macronutrient stoichiometry to alleviate eutrophication. Sci. Total Environ. 634, 439–447.


Troldborg, M.; Beesley, L.; Stockan, J.; Avery, L.; Hough, R.L. (2019) Development of approach for modelling water flow and contaminant mass balances at Dinnet., Internal Report, James Hutton Institute, Aberdeen, 6pp.