FreshWater Watch Champions: Rebecca
Added: 5th October 2023
FreshWater Watch is our citizen science programme that gives communities fresh water testing tools to monitor water quality, identify problems and fight for improvements in their local rivers. Hear from our FreshWater Watch Champion, Rebecca Lewis, why she joined us and what her group has achieved so far.
Please tell us about your FreshWater Watch group.
The group that I volunteer as a Coordinator for is called Riverfly on the Esk. We are a group of trained volunteers who monitor the health of the Lothian Esk. We have been doing some freshwater invertebrate monitoring for four years or a bit longer. We then started the freshwater sampling with Earthwatch’s FreshWater Watch programme a year ago.
What motivated your group to join FreshWater Watch?
We are concerned about the health of our waterways, and we already had the biological monitoring in place. The reason for doing the chemical sampling with FreshWater Watch was to add another layer. It has given our volunteers the opportunity to learn another water sampling technique, and the data will help us build a better picture of the liveliness of the river.
Considering all the negative headlines about freshwater pollution, was there a more specific trigger that made you want to take action?
The Lothian Esk in particular is quite impacted. It’s got combined sewage outlets flowing in, it’s got your usual runoff. It also suffers from mine water pollution. So there’s a few different types of pollution impacting the river. But I think, in general, we’re quite a positive group. It’s more about actively being engaged, trying to make a positive difference, and adding our data to the existing information out there.
What does your local river mean to you and your community?
I’d say we’re definitely a river community. It splits right through all the little towns and villages, from source to sea. Our kids play in it, our dogs swim in it, you can’t travel through many parts where you’re not seeing the river. And of course, if there are any pollution issues, it will emotionally impact you.
The river is the heart of the community. Personally, I feel calm in that space. It’s a very healing place to be. And that makes me want to connect with it more. I want to help the river recover and reach its full potential again.
Can you tell us a bit more about the group and your fellow volunteers?
We’ve got 52 people now trained up, and the majority of them remain engaged with the surveys. We are getting a real mix of people. And I think that diversity is what makes the project much richer. You’re coming in from one angle as a scientist. But we’ve also got artists, teachers and educationalists from across the institutions. We’ve got people who work for the government for local agencies. It brings in different questions and a different way to approach solutions. What unites us is that we are all happy to be doing something positive for the river, because it does struggle.
What are your thoughts on the power of citizen science?
If you are on your own, just reading all the negative news stories, not knowing what to do, then that can feel very disempowering. We want to reverse that trend and get people engaged and show them how they can help.
An important aspect of citizen science is getting together with people. It’s not just about collecting data and information, it’s also about feeling connected with the natural environment and your community. It’s quite empowering!
Have you been able to use the FreshWater Watch data to make a difference?
The data in Scotland that’s used by environment agencies is the Riverfly invertebrate data. With the water testing, it’s more to add another layer of understanding. We do lots of presentations for local community groups, and we have done presentations at conferences as well. I’m about to present at the International Conference in Newcastle. So the data is shared as much as possible. Anybody who wants access to it can have access to it.
Do you feel proud that you are gathering this vital data?
I feel enormous pride for what this group has achieved. It’s actually the biggest monitoring project in Scotland. We’ve completed I think over 180 surveys now. That’s a lot of time our volunteers have contributed.
What kind of changes would you like to see from policymakers regarding freshwater protection and restoration?
I think the goal should be free-flowing rivers, restored as much as possible to their natural state where they can be self-sufficient, where they can survive and thrive. That’s what you do with your children; you bring them up so that they can survive on their own. But with rivers there have been years and years of canalising and conforming them to what we need, which has destroyed a lot of habitat. And now our rivers are seriously struggling. It’s our shared responsibility to restore them.
What is the best way of inspiring people to take action?
I don’t think it’s the negative way that makes people feel angry. We’ve got to do it in a positive way. Showing them constructive ways of action that we can take together. When people are volunteering, they want to be volunteering in a happy space.
Are there any memories from your volunteering activities that you feel were particularly hope-inspiring?
Oh, there are many. One memory was a get-together in December. We were sitting down, and then the volunteers produced mulled wine and mince pies, just off their own backs. In that moment it was more about just celebrating being together. Volunteering and field work doesn’t have to be hard going! I also had one situation recently where I was running a training session, and the participants thought that the river was dead. It felt really depressing. And I said, ‘Let’s just go and see what we find.’ So I brought out two invertebrates. And they were just absolutely amazed and so relieved that there was life in there!
Do you have any advice for other people out there who feel inspired to join FreshWater Watch?
Don’t feel it’s beyond you! That’s the whole idea about citizen science – everyone can get involved without any previous knowledge in this area. Just get out there and get stuck in, and you’ll quickly see the value. It’s the benefits that you can gain personally, as well as for your river ecosystem.
We are in the midst of climate change. We’re seeing our rivers heating up, we’re seeing the wildlife suffer. But we can really do something about it. And it doesn’t matter how small it is. Together we can make a massive difference! I think that really is the power of citizen science.
If you are interested in joining an existing FreshWater Watch group in your local area or setting up your own, there is more information on our FreshWater Watch website.