Farming for Water


This webpage is part of the legacy website for the Source to Tap Project, supported by the European Union’s INTERREG VA, managed by the Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB). This project has now come to an end and this site should be used for reference only.

The pilot Land Incentive Scheme (LIS) in the River Derg catchment supported landowners and farmers to adopt more sustainable land management practices to reduce erosion, sediment run-off and pollution from herbicides to help protect raw water quality at source.

Herbicides, organic colour, and sediments pose a significant risk to source drinking water supply in the River Erne and River Derg cross-border catchments. These risks arise because raw water abstracted from these two source water catchments often contains high levels of the herbicide 2-methyl-4-chlorophenoxyacetic acid (commonly referred to as MCPA), which is used primarily by the agricultural sector for the control of soft rush (Juncus effusus). There may also be organic material from drained peat bogs and sediment arising from land management practices and eroding river banks.

These pressures have threatened regulatory compliance for drinking water standards at several Northern Ireland Water and Irish Water Water Treatment Works(WTWs) and have contributed to rising costs and energy consumption in additional water treatment processes to produce drinking water to strict water quality standards. The Source to Tap project has designed and trialled catchment-based solutions to address the issues identified in the River Erne and River Derg catchments, to ensure drinking water quality compliance, whilst reducing treatment costs and contributing to improved Water Framework Directive (WFD) status of the catchments.

Catchment Characterisation

Through risk mapping and catchment characterisation, an assessment was made of land use and pressures, the potential number of farm businesses and size of contributing catchment area to WTWs in the River Erne and River Derg catchments. Based on these considerations it was decided that it was most feasible to focus the pilot LIS on the River Derg catchment. The River Erne and River Derg catchment risk mapping and characterisation reports can be downloaded below:

Explore the River Erne catchment through the interactive StoryMap
The River Erne rises in County Cavan and flows for almost 100 kilometres through Lough Gowna, Lough Oughter, Upper Lough Erne, Lower Lough Erne and Lough Asseroe before entering the sea at Ballyshannon, County Donegal. The total catchment area of the Erne is 4374 km².

Explore the River Derg catchment through the interactive StoryMap
The River Derg and its tributaries have a channel length of approximately 60 kilometres and a catchment area of 369 km². The River Derg emerges from Lough Derg in County Donegal and flows for approximately 12 km before merging with the Mourne Beg River, 2.5 km above Castlederg in County Tyrone. The Derg River continues through the lower Derg Valley and merges with the River Strule just below Ardstraw to form the Mourne River. The Mourne River subsequently flows into the River Foyle just below Strabane.

Designing the pilot Land Incentive Scheme (LIS)

The project appointed consultants to develop the cross-border LIS, taking into consideration jurisdictional differences in Agri-Environment Schemes, agri-policy, legal frameworks, limiting EU regulations (i.e. block exemption and de minimis rules) and how the LIS would operate within the conditions of the funding being used (INTERREG VA).

Delivering the pilot Land Incentive Scheme (LIS)

In the River Derg catchment, the project delivered a €1.16m pilot Land Incentive Scheme (LIS) that provided 100% funding to local landowners to make changes in agricultural practice that were expected to impact positively on herbicide and soil loss. Dedicated, non-regulatory farm advisors worked with farmers and landowners to provide agri-environmental advice and water-friendly business planning on the farm. The project provided farmers with practical measures to help protect water quality and make farm businesses and land management more sustainable.

In total, 118 farm business’ received grants to make their farms more ‘water and environmentally friendly’. Measures included the replacement of MCPA (2-methyl-4-chlorophenoxyacetic acid) boom spraying with weed-wiping for rush control, pesticide storage, livestock exclusion fencing and the provision of alternative watering facilities, clean/dirty water separation options and a farmer innovation option for unique solutions to unique issues. A bespoke and confidential Water Environment Management Plan (WEMP) was produced for each farm, highlighting what measures could be adopted that would bring about improved water quality and benefits to the farm business.

The pilot LIS process was designed and administered by the project, from initial farm visits, through application for grant, to final reimbursement to landowners. Documents and procedures were established for the management and administration of the LIS, all of which can be accessed here as ‘free-to-adapt and use’ template documents.

Please Note: the template documents provided above were designed specifically for the Source to Tap Land Incentive Scheme and you should adapt them and seek your own professional advice on the correct process and wording for your own LIS.

Monitoring the impact of the pilot LIS on water quality

High-frequency water quality monitoring was carried out to measure the impacts of the LIS on herbicide concentration, colour, and turbidity in the raw water prior to abstraction at the NI Water WTW’s on the main channel of the Derg River (Counties Donegal and Tyrone).

Passive samplers (PS) have been proposed as an enhanced water quality monitoring solution in rivers, but their performance against high-frequency data over the longer term has not been widely explored. As part of the Source to Tap water quality monitoring programme, the performance of a widely used PS called Chemcatcher® was tested against the high-frequency water quality data being collected in the project.  The research conclusions can be found in the following paper:

Evaluating the impact of the pilot LIS

The impact of the pilot LIS was evaluated using the UKWIR methodology and considered the following:

  • Identifies and contextualises the problems to be addressed, which includes characterisation of the baseline situation.
  • Describes the work undertaken in the catchment to improve drinking water quality – LIS and Stakeholder engagement activities.
  • Evaluates whether these activities improved drinking water quality, and
  • Performs a cost-benefit analysis of the overall intervention in the catchment.

MCPA reductions in raw water was achieved, with up to 24% in MCPA concentrations, and 40% reduction in MCPA loads, where weed-wiping was substituted across less than 3% of the catchment area.

Decreasing trends in turbidity were detected in the River Derg, attributed to measures such as live stock exclusion fencing to prevent riverbank erosion.


Ground-breaking new insights into MCPA herbicide dynamics in river systems were achieved, revealing that over 70% of annual herbicide losses occur during short-lived storm events, and that MCPA persists in the water system year-round.

Summary of the pilot Land Incentive Scheme (LIS)

Download our Policy Briefing which highlights the key findings from the evaluation of the LIS as an Agri-Environment Scheme for Improving Water Quality.

Assessing the Cost-Benefit of the pilot LIS

For every £1 invested through the Source to Tap project in providing farmers with on-farm advice and implementing the right measure in the right locations, a £3.36 benefit in terms of drinking water quality can be realised over a 30-year period.

A cost-benefit analysis was undertaken on the LIS and community outreach benefits of the project. The UKWIR framework for quantifying the benefits of water quality catchment management initiatives was used for the assessment.

Projecting over a 30-year period, the benefits, and costs of the pilot Land Incentive Scheme with community outreach, including the cost of extending the scheme into the future, amassed a Net Present Value (2022) of £8.7M and a Benefit Cost Ratio of 3.36.

That means that for every £1 invested in an LIS over the next 30 years, £3.36 worth of benefits are generated. Most cost savings are achieved because regulatory breaches in MCPA trigger substantial capital and operational spend this could be avoided with effective catchment management. It is likely that there will be additional water quality benefits, e.g. lower levels of ammonia and coliforms for drinking water abstraction. Recreational benefits to anglers, enhanced biodiversity, erosion/flood control and carbon benefits should also be considered.

Learning Lessons from the pilot LIS

Although highly successful in achieving its aims, there are several key learning points from the LIS that could be used to enhance the effectiveness, impact, and efficiency of a similar scheme being implemented or planned elsewhere on the island of Ireland and further afield.

A full Process Evaluation of the LIS and associated community outreach has systematically gathered information on how the pilot LIS operated; the findings of which can be used to improve delivery and efficiency of similar future schemes.

A full technical review of the pilot LIS and associated community outreach was undertaken to identify key lessons learnt and to provide a summary of those lessons for anyone wanting to deliver a similar catchment-scale agri-environmental scheme.

Engaging and Informing the Farming Community

The project undertook targeted activities to raise awareness amongst local communities, particularly those involved in agriculture, and the wider public, of the issues surrounding water quality and the role they can play in improving and maintaining it.

A series of practical and informative short films and best practice information resources have been produced which can be used to communicate messages about the importance of safe herbicide storage, handling and use, stock-proofing of watercourses, separating clean and dirty water in farmyards and more.

During the project, on-farm and virtual rush control events were held to allow experts from Teagasc and CAFRE to share information about best practice.  Our Rush Control Webinar is also available to view.

Stakeholder visit

To access these resources and find out more, visit our Landowner & Farmers section of this website by clicking here.