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Looking after our rivers and waterways
This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Choice, 2011
Arrow, Eden , Piddle, Quaggy, Dour and Wandle… the many hundreds of rivers and streams which make their way through our land have borne their names for endless generations. Friends in fine weather, formidable foes when flooding occurs, our rivers are all too often taken for granted. But they're important. They convey our drinking water, irrigate our farming lands, provide habitats for wildlife and – sometimes – act as convenient drains for our effluent.
Now, not before time, Britain 's rivers are being given some attention. Our government, and in particular the Environment Agency, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, are currently involved in a long-term mission to make our rivers better. They are trying to improve the water quality, cut back on pollution and improve habitats. In the process, they're hoping to help reduce the effects of floods and droughts.
The present story began in 2000, when all the member states in the European Union agreed to adopt common environmental standards for their rivers. The Water Framework Directive they approved was passed into UK law in 2003, and since then the work has really got under way. There is a deadline of 2015 when all our rivers are supposed to be officially classified as ‘good'. (Good is a little below ‘high', but above ‘moderate', ‘poor' and ‘bad'.) The Directive does accept that this is harder to achieve for some rivers than others, and sometimes permits the deadline to be stretched to 2021 or even 2027. But the principle is the same, that of protecting and improving what's called the water environment (this is because the Directive also covers lakes, canals, standing water and the immediate off-shore seas).
The way that this work is being tackled is by dividing all of Britain 's rivers and water courses into twelve regions, each with their own River Basin Management Plan. These are focused on where the water in each little stream and river ends up. Take the ‘Last of the Summer Wine' town of Holmfirth , for example: here the river water eventually ends up in the Humber, so the town and its local river Holme fall within the Humber River Basin region. Just across the Pennines, however, the water flows west to the Mersey, and is covered in the North-West River Basin area. The other water regions (anti-clockwise from here) are Dee, Western Wales, Severn, South West, South East, Thames, Anglian, and (beyond Humber) Northumbria. Almost all of Scotland 's rivers are covered in the Scotland River Basin area. The exception, Solway-Tweed, covers two river systems, straddles both sides of the country, and includes both English and Scottish waters.
There are all sorts of reasons why, even if you're not a water industry professional, you may want to take an interest in your local water courses. You may be an angler. You may be interested in wildlife, keen perhaps to ensure that otters can recolonise your local river. You may sail on our lakes or cruise our canals. You may live off mains-water, and be only too aware of the need to maintain the water table. Or, like millions of others, you may simply enjoy exploring our beautiful countryside and love walking beside our rivers and streams.
The good news is that, in theory at least, the general public is being encouraged to get involved. The Water Framework Directive says very firmly that in getting our waters clean the role of citizens and citizens' groups will be crucial. Public engagement is necessary to ensure that the legislation really is being properly implemented, the European Union says.
In some areas, parish and community councils or other grassroots community groups have begun to take an interest in their rivers and streams. But there are also about thirty independent local ‘rivers trusts', dedicated independent pressure groups usually registered as charities, who focus specifically on looking after particular rivers. Some tend to have strong representation from anglers or landowners, others come from a background in local environmental campaigning and education, but in most cases there was a particular trigger which encouraged their formation. According to the Association of Rivers Trust, the body which links the trusts of Britain and Ireland together, several trusts have been set up after a pollution incident when afterwards local people decide to band together to try to prevent future occurrences.
The ART website will give you details of whether a rivers trust already exists in your area and, if it doesn't, advice on how to set one up. But even if that's a step too far for you initially, there are some basic initial steps which anyone can take.
The first of these may well be to take a look at the River Basin Management Plan for your own local area. Each of these plans for England and Wales can be found through links on the main Environment Agency web page. The main reports tend to be easy-to-read documents of about 50-80 pages, and there are also more detailed appendices for the real enthusiasts. For Scotland , the comparable River Basin Management Plans are accessed through the SEPA website. In Northern Ireland , the relevant reports can be read here.
Looking after the bogs
The Water Framework Directive isn't just concerned with running water. One particular issue in Britain is to improve the way that water is stored in our upland moors and peat bogs, many of which have degraded badly in recent decades.
Environmentalists talk of the importance of ensuring that bogs are healthy, by which they mean gooey and water-laden. There are steps being taken in several upland areas to ‘rewet' the land where, a generation ago, farmers could get grants for drainage work. Wet peat bogs (as opposed to dry, crumbling bogs with little vegetation) help absorb water and prevent flash flooding; they also improve our drinking water quality. More than this, however, they are invaluable stores for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases which would otherwise be in the atmosphere.
Concerns over climate change have emphasised the importance of trees in the battle to reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases, but the value of peat bogs has often got overlooked. This is now changing. In Exmoor, the ‘Mires on the Moors' project has involved rewetting and restoring degraded bog in an area of the national park covering more than 2000 acres. A similar project Moors for the Future has successfully restored moorland in the Peak District, and the lessons learned there are now being put into practice further north, in the south Pennines.
The message from these and other ventures is a simple one: bogs are good for us. We need to learn to love them better.
How to report water pollution
If you want to report a pollution incident in a river or lake in Britain , contact the incident line on 0800 807060. (This number applies for both the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency).
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