Constructed farm wetlands (CFWs) designed for remediation of farmyard runoff: an evaluation of their water treatment efficiency, ecological value, costs and benefits
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Farmyard runoff, i.e. the effluent generated by the rain falling over farmyards, tracks and roofs, is a significant and overlooked source of nutrients and pathogens which degrades aquatic ecosystems through eutrophication, siltation and wildlife poisoning, raises public health concerns, and incurs considerable costs for society. Among other Best Management Practices implemented to address agricultural water pollution and help achieve compliance with the Water Framework Directive, Constructed Farm Wetlands (CFWs), i.e. shallow surface flow wetlands comprising several vegetated cells in series, are being recommended for remediation of farmyard runoff, due to their capacity to remove or store pollutants. Investigation is therefore needed of their long-term water treatment efficiency and ecological value to optimize their design and cost-effectiveness and minimize their negative externalities. The main aims of this study were to: 1) evaluate the treatment performance of CFWs and the link between design, hydrology and efficiency; 2) assess their ecological value and the influence of water quality and design on wetland ecology; 3) identify their costs, benefits and the way they are perceived by farmers; and 4) inform guidelines for the design, construction and aftercare of sustainable CFWs. Research focused on two CFWs in south-east Scotland, one at a dairy farm and one at a mixed beef-arable farm, which receive runoff from yards and roofs, field drainage and septic tank overflow. From February 2006 to June 2008, rainfall, evaporation, water levels and flow at the CFWs were monitored, and their treatment efficiency was assessed from water samples collected manually regularly or with automatic samplers during storm events, and analysed using standard methods. In addition, their ecological value was assessed twice a year from vegetation and aquatic macroinvertebrate surveys. Finally, semi-structured interviews with eight farmers and a farm advisor and discussions with three CFW designers in Scotland and Ireland allowed collection of technical and economic data on farm practices, CFW construction and maintenance, and helped assess CFW cost-effectiveness and acceptance by farmers. Both CFWs reduced pollutant concentrations between inlet and outlet, with efficiencies at CFW1 and CFW2 respectively of 87% and < 0% for five-day biochemical oxygen demand, 86% and 83% for suspended solids, 68% and 26% for nitrate/nitrite, 42% and 34% for ammonium, and 12% and 31% for reactive phosphorus. Nevertheless, the concentration of all pollutants at the outlet of CFW1, and concentration of nitrate/nitrite at the outlet of CFW2 frequently exceeded river water quality standards. Water treatment efficiency varied seasonally, being significantly lower in winter, mainly due to lower temperatures, increased volume of inputs and reduced residence time. The ecological value of the two CFWs differed greatly. At CFW1 and CFW2 respectively, 14 and 22 wetland plant species and 24 and 46 aquatic macroinvertebrate species (belonging to 13 and 27 BMWP scoring families respectively) were recorded, illustrating the greater biodiversity conservation value of CFW2, which was one year older, larger, cleaner, comprised several ponds with a combination of open water and densely vegetated areas, and was subsequently more structurally diverse. The socio-economic study revealed that, despite significant costs associated with their construction (£20 000-£50 000 ha-1) and maintenance (£900-£1500 ha-1 yr-1), CFWs may still represent a more cost-effective alternative than conventional methods. However, their adoption, implementation and sustainable use by farmers were conditioned by land availability and suitability, existing farm infrastructure, detailed information on limitations and maintenance requirements, and adequate financial support for both construction and aftercare. To ensure a long-term, consistent and efficient water treatment, and to enhance biodiversity and landscape, well-maintained, large, vegetated, multi-cell CFWs with shallow overflows are recommended. Their size should be adapted to local precipitation patterns and catchment characteristics. Keywords: agriculture, best management practice (BMP), biodiversity, constructed farm wetland (CFW), costs, farmyard runoff, water pollution, water treatment.