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The shocking state of our rivers: Whose story are we telling?

Last week, England’s Environment Agency (EA) released the results from their latest assessment of the health of our rivers. They look pretty dismal. But are these data really telling the full story?

According to the assessment, only 14% of rivers are considered to be of ‘good ecological status’. This is a combined measurement of the quality of their basic water quality (for example; nutrient concentrations and pH); the condition of the habitats they provide; and the species they support. Even worse, not a single river has achieved ‘good chemical status’. This means that all of our rivers contain at least one nasty-sounding chemical from a list of around 40 substances including polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs, found in flame-retardants), atrazine (found in herbicides), and Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT, a now-banned insecticide that is still found in the environment in some places). The assessment is based on an extensive network of river monitoring run by the EA.

The EA have been monitoring our rivers since 1995. In 2019, they made over 80,000 measurements of water quality alone. In recent years, they have made several advances in the way they measure the quality of our water. The fact that 97% of rivers had ‘good chemical status’ in 2016 and that has now dropped to zero is, in part, because the EA have only recently started measuring some of the persistent chemical pollutants. These advances are countered by the fact that the monitoring network is shrinking. The EA simply aren’t able to collect data from as many places as they once could.

With over 200,000 km of rivers in the UK, we need to monitor a lot of water if we want to truly understand how healthy our rivers are. The EA monitoring network only tells part of the story. Small water bodies, like streams and headwaters, are often overlooked. This begs a question: when we talk about the terrible condition of our rivers, whose story are we telling?

When we launched registrations for our upcoming WaterBlitz event, we asked people to let us know why they were interested in taking part. As we read the responses, we realised that the public have a lot to tell us about their local rivers. One person suspects localised sewage pollution from increasing numbers of houseboats. Another has a small river in their garden that they feel should be included in water quality surveys. Yet another keeps historic watercress beds and would like to know if they help to remove nutrients from agricultural pollution from the river. The people who understand their river the best are the people who interact with it every day. It seems that all of these people – and there are a lot of them - have a story to tell.

If we can somehow capture all of these stories and integrate them into our national monitoring, we stand a much better chance of understanding what the true state of our rivers really is. Is everyone, up and down the country, observing declines in the quality of their rivers? Can the public, like the person who suspects pollution from houseboats, help to pinpoint where the problems are coming from? Or, perhaps, there are beautifully pristine streams running through people’s gardens that we just don’t know about yet. If we can identify these environments, will we be able to provide better support to the people who are already working hard to protect them?

In order to tell these stories, we need to be able to measure them in the same way that the EA do. The WaterBlitz makes use of citizen science to do this. It allows people to record the health of their rivers and take an active role in building a more complete picture of the environment. In the weeks following our WaterBlitz next weekend, our scientists will be working hard to try to extract their stories from the data collected. We will be bringing all of the data together to identify clean waters and pollution hotspots. Our citizen scientists, meanwhile, will be able to understand how the river in their own patch compares with the EA’s assessment of the national picture.

Each stream, river, pond or body of fresh water feeds into a wider water-network. Each of these has a story that will help us understand this network. Each has a person willing to tell their story. By working together, and with all the information, we can make a real difference to this vital resource.

Isabel Bishop, Research Lead Freshwater, Earthwatch Europe 

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