MoRPh: a tool for assessing river habitats at biological monitoring sites

As you probably already know, SmartRivers is proud to be part of the Riverfly Partnership's 'Riverfly Plus' toolkit, alongside other exciting citizen science projects like MoRPh - the modular river survey

River organisms respond to their environment and so it is important to monitor any environmental changes. Often the environment is characterised through water chemistry and temperature, but the physical and hydraulic habitat structure of the river and its margins are also very important.

The MoRPh survey was developed to inventory habitats within a river channel and along its margins at a scale appropriate for characterising the physical environment at biological monitoring sites. Originally the biological monitoring was envisaged to be kick sampling of macroinvertebrate communities, and so MoRPh was designed to capture habitat within a rectangular area extending back 10 m across both river bank tops and along a length of river roughly equivalent to twice the river width. By conducting 10 adjacent MoRPh surveys along a river, a river length of approximately 20 channel widths is inventoried, which should be sufficient to capture the larger range of habitats available to more mobile species such as fish. I expect that both these scales are of interest to readers because invertebrates are food for fish!

The MoRPh survey records flow velocity patterns; sediments, including areas of siltation of the river bed; physical features such as pools, riffles, bars, bank profiles, ponds; the structure and extent of the river bed, edge and bank top vegetation; and the types of human interventions (pipes, weirs, bank reinforcement) and pressures from adjacent land use. These observations are recorded by not only ticking the type of feature that is present on a list but also by estimating the feature’s abundance through either a count (pools, riffles) or a category of percentage cover (gravel, vegetation structural type). There are three feature lists to complete, one for the bank tops, one for the bank faces and one for the river bed. In addition, the surveyor records details of where the survey is located, so that it can be shown on a map, and also the approximate size of the river channel, because river channel properties are strongly affected by river size.

MoRPh surveyors are allocated a log-in to an information system that stores and maps their data, calculates some useful indicators from their survey data, and allows raw data and indicators to be downloaded. The indicators include the degree of siltation, the average and largest sizes of the bed material, and the physical and vegetation complexity of the river bed. These bed-indicators are extremely useful for monitoring short-term (monthly, seasonal, annual) changes in the river bed that may impact on the invertebrate community. Broader changes in the river channel and its margins also have important impacts on river organisms but these changes usually occur more slowly, making monitoring most effective at an annual or longer timescale.

If you are interested in the MoRPh survey and would like to find out more, have a look at the Modular River Survey website: www.modularriversurvey.org.

- Prof. Angela Gurnell, Queen Mary University of London

Persistence pays off in the pursuit of a pesticide problem

This is a terrific outcome for the river, wild fish, the wider environment and the local community.

Nick Measham, CEO S&TC writes,

Bakkavör is closing its salad washing plant at Alresford on the Upper Itchen. In simple terms this should result in an end to significant chemical pollution and provide much needed respite for all biodiversity associated with the river.

It is difficult to celebrate this terrific result for the environment while at the same time local employees of Bakkavör face job losses. But, we should. In our experience it is rarely the case that it comes down to” jobs or the environment”, more often than not there are technical and operational solutions to pollution problems which require only modest investment. It really is the responsibility of Boards to balance their need for every penny of profit, over livelihoods and the environment of local people. Certainly, it is S&TC’s view that consumers and communities are increasingly demanding a “jobs and the environment” approach from business. The environment does not need to be sacrificed for economic growth. We wanted Bakkavor to discharge its environmental obligations to stop polluting the river. We were not seeking closure.

On purely environmental grounds the end to pollution from salad washing is an outcome which we are delighted with. We hope that the local people and community groups long associated with the river will reap the benefits of its increasing health. From our own perspective the closure is a reassuring vindication of S&TC’s unique, and demonstrably effective, strategy to drive change and improve river health to directly benefit wild salmon and trout. A combination of outcome focused scientific study, robust legal posture and patient but forceful campaigning.

Some years ago, following concerns raised by local residents, anglers and conservationists, S&TC lent its weight to efforts to end the environmental damage that Bakkavör was suspected of causing. It was as a direct result of S&TC’s model of producing scientifically analysed invertebrate data on the Itchen (which we popularised under the River Fly Census banner) that we were able to force the Environment Agency to undertake further research into potential pollution coming from the salad washing plant. In June 2018 S&TC made a formal notification of environmental damage to the Environment Agency (EA), pursuant to the Environmental Liability Directive. The EA investigation exposed a number of issues with the site, some of which were resolved promptly, but a pesticide threat was highlighted, which, until the recently announced closure of the plant, remained unresolved and subject to continuous pressure. At the time of the closure, the EA was in the process of imposing a monitoring regime on Bakkavor and Vitacress, its neighbour on a tributary of the River Test, with highly precautionary pesticide discharge limits. It remains to be seen how Vitacress will respond to the challenge of cleaning up its discharge.

S&TC’s role in leading a scientifically evidenced approach to highlight the environmental damage attributable to the operation allowed us to engage significant local and national media interest, including a feature on the BBC’s Countryfile.

Not only did S&TC’s investigations reveal problems with Bakkavör’s operations, it also shone a light on the serious inadequacies of regulation and enforcement options for the EA. Exploration of these issues has led to further revelations which are of national significance. The likelihood of the same issues at Bakkavör Alresford Salads and Vitacress being replicated in other settings, in terms of pollution and inadequate regulation, appear to be high.

A successful outcome in one location will provide a compelling case study, a proven model for eradicating chemical pollution and potentially significant reform of the EA licensing regime across the country.

The chemical problem is national in scale and, if it is to be addressed, it requires a robust, fit for purpose, regime around licensing, monitoring and enforcement.  Both locally and nationally S&TC is using its scientifically based evidence to effect change. S&TC will continue to campaign and create energy and enthusiasm for change, but as with Bakkavör, patience will be required to accommodate the hurdles the EA faces.

Data collection, analysis, legal fees and staff time has come at a significant financial cost, and it is without doubt that our members and donors are owed a debt of gratitude. Being truly financially independent has its challenges, but it allows S&TC to campaign, free of conflicts of interest, more powerfully and effectively.

This is a terrific outcome for the river, wild fish, the wider environment and the local community.

Media Coverage:

Countryfile: https://www.salmon-trout.org/2019/06/17/bakkavor-alresford-salads-impacting-upper-itchen/

https://www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/news/18602214.updated-salmon-trout-conservation-argue-alresford-salads-pollution-river-itchen/

https://www.endsreport.com/article/1690492/salad-washing-plant-pumped-harmful-levels-neonicotinoid-chalk-stream

https://www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/news/18630704.bakkavor-close-alresford-salad-branch-loss-100-jobs/

https://www.hampshirechronicle.co.uk/news/18651943.mixed-reaction-bakkavor-factory-closing-doors/

S&TC Recent Press Releases:

Levels of Acetamiprid, a pesticide discharged by Bakkavor into the upper Itchen catchment, have regularly exceeded acceptable concentrations by a factor of up to four times.

https://www.salmon-trout.org/2020/06/23/toxic-neonicotinoid-washed-off-salad-leaves-into-protected-chalkstream/

Identification of 36 other chemicals from Bakkavor Alresford salad washing activities which could be causing environmental damage.  The company declared they were permitted although the EA believed they “present a real or present danger to the environment”.

https://www.salmon-trout.org/2020/07/23/thirty-six-toxic-pesticides-washed-into-headwaters-of-sac-chalkstream/

Reporting with a purpose

S&TC are a national organisation and we use evidence from local case studies to help instigate policy changes that will benefit UK wild fish populations. But, this is just part of the value - we are making all our Riverfly Census findings available so they can be used to inform local management and drive action.

Each individual river report is based on three years of surveying data. Where possible, we have linked up our findings with other existing literature and data. Using the available information we suggest where local fishing and/or conservation groups can focus their management efforts to achieve the best health outcomes for each of the 12 original Census rivers.

Some of our local reports can be found on the slider below. Alternatively, visit the Riverfly Census page and scroll down to the map.

Phosphorus, Chickens and the River Wye

S&TC’s agricultural policy is simple; incentivise farmers to invest in their infrastructure and spread the word about modern soil management, but always be prepared to use the current legislation to regulate persistent offenders...

Paul Knight, S&TC Fisheries Consultant

George Monbiot writing in the Guardian recently highlighted the dreadful state of Welsh rivers.  He focussed on the Wye, where intensive chicken farming discharges phosphate (P) at far greater levels than the safe carrying capacity of the river, leading to awful water quality and subsequent impact on its wildlife.  The NFU hang on the coattails of Natural Resources Wales, who state that P has improved in the river over recent years, but rather than crow that excess nutrient is no longer a problem, it is important to understand the way P acts in a river, and why no-one should be complacent about the state of the Wye or its sister Welsh rivers.

The easiest way to explain P’s impact on a river is to think of a cliff gently sloping down until it reaches an edge, which then drops vertically into the sea – let’s give the cliff-edge a value of 30 and the top of the gentle slope as 100.  P at 40 has broadly the same impact on water quality as it does at 100 – too much nutrient leading to excess algae growth, discoloured water and the ‘dirty’ riverbed to which George Monbiot  alludes, but once it drops back to 30, the improvement is dramatic, and the symptoms fall away, you might say, over the cliff edge and into the sea.

This rather simplistic explanation has an important message, cutting P back from 100 to, say, 50, is a huge improvement, to which government agencies and the likes of the NFU will crow about the great job being done.  However, in terms of water quality improvement that actually supports more resilient and healthy life in the river, it is virtually useless.  More work needs to be done to reach 30 at the cliff edge, and then the river really starts a rapid improvement.

So why is excess P a problem to water life, apart from making the river environment murky and the bed gravels covered in algae?  S&TC’s Riverfly Census showed that P, along with sediment and toxic chemicals, are the biggest river polluters across the UK, and that agriculture is their main source. Our further research proved that high P levels, particularly in conjunction with sediment, kills water insects, the vital basis of a river’s food chain.  So, P, especially in conjunction with sediment, is actually toxic to water life unless kept down to natural values, 30 in our scenario.

S&TC is now using this evidence to press Welsh government and Natural Resources Wales, and Defra/Environment Agency (EA) in England, to take river pollution seriously and tighten agricultural regulation to ensure that the wildlife of rivers such as the Wye have a much more natural environment in which to thrive.  We can never return our watercourses to their truly natural state, there will always be human impact in such a closely managed countryside as we have in the UK, but there are issues we can do something about if we have the political commitment to address them, and cutting back agricultural impact on our rivers is definitely one of those.

Strong regulation is a must, but we do not just advocate the stick approach.  If you read the executive summary of the Axe Report, you will see that financial incentives for farmers to improve their infrastructure can produce dramatic results, albeit that they were threatened with heavy regulation if they didn’t comply.  Persuading farmers to adopt better soil management techniques is also critical, so that P is kept where it belongs, on fields, rather than being allowed to leach into rivers.

However, the most important aspect of the Axe example is that sufficient resources were made available to the EA to properly address the poor ecological state of the river, and they did that by visiting farms and advising farmers, many of whom had no idea they were polluting the river.  The result was nearly £4m of inward investment into updated infrastructure, and that is the sort of funding we need replicated across the whole of Wales and England if we are to protect our rivers into the future.

So, S&TC’s agricultural policy is simple; incentivise farmers to invest in their infrastructure and spread the word about modern soil management, but always be prepared to use the current legislation to regulate persistent offenders so that it becomes uneconomic for farmers to pollute watercourses such as the Wye.  If we can achieve that, then our wild fish and all other water wildlife will have the best possible chance to thrive, even in our micro-managed environment.

Thirty-six toxic pesticides washed into headwaters of SAC chalkstream

Bakkavör washing unknown quantities of thirty-six toxic pesticides, which present real danger to aquatic life, into headwaters of SAC chalkstream

Following on from our recent release about dangerous quantities of toxic neonicotinoid Acetamiprid being washed off salad leaves into the headwaters of a protected chalkstream, a further freedom of Information (FOI) request proves this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Information obtained by Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC), confirms thirty-six other chemicals, (Appendix 1) from Bakkavör’s Alresford salad washing activities, which could be causing environmental damage. The list of chemicals, which Bakkavör declare are permitted for use on the produce they wash at the site, highlights thirty-six chemicals of great concern where the Environment Agency believe they “present a real or present danger to the environment”. Current laboratory tests for these chemicals cannot detect the presence in the discharge low enough to ensure they are not causing environmental damage.

The problem is national in scale. Alongside neighbouring Vitacress on the Bourne Rivulet, a tributary of the River Test, there are several hundred similar factories across England which could also be discharging lethal quantities of pesticides.

The Environment Agency has produced, using the best available science on the ecological impact, a minimum reporting value (MRV) for each chemical, at which they believe they can be confident no damage to the surrounding environment, to its fish, bugs, kingfishers, otters and water voles, will occur. However, unfortunately for thirty-six of the pesticides listed current laboratories Limit of Quantification (LOQ), the lowest analyte concentration that can be quantitatively detected with a stated accuracy and precision, is in the worst case 3500 times higher than these “safe” concentrations.

S&TC believes the only safe and responsible solution is for Bakkavör to stop washing salads and discharging its lethal cocktail immediately while a means to measure and remove harmful pesticides is introduced. And the EA needs to demand Bakkavör meets the environmentally safe levels come what may.

Nick Measham, S&TC CEO states,

”Pesticides are, of course, by their very nature designed to kill unwanted animals, unlike industrial chemicals or pharmaceuticals whose toxic impact is an unfortunate side-effect. Is it really acceptable that any pesticides are allowed to be discharged into our natural environment whatever the concentrations? Surely as a responsible business Bakkavör must stop discharging all knowingly toxic pesticides into this river which in so importance to the local community and has international ecological importance, before it’s too late”.

The River Alre, which receives Bakkavör’s toxic discharge, is a tributary to the River Itchen, a Special Area of Conservation- the highest environmental protection a site can get, and a world important chalkstream, as 85% of global chalkstreams are in England. Yet, because of historical discharge permits, once small, but now industrial level salad washing activity is able to pollute this invaluable natural resource.

Janina Gray, Head of Science and Policy at S&TC added,

“Chemical pollution is arguably the biggest single threat to our wildlife and us. In truth, we know very little about most of the chemicals we are pumping into the environment, so governments have put it in the too difficult to deal with box for too long. With wild fish populations like salmon endangered, bugs both in the water and on land showing catastrophic populations collapses and 85% of our rivers considered unhealthy, we cannot ignore this problem any longer. Pesticides are the obvious place to start, and in particular point discharges like Bakkavör. I for one will not be buying any washed bagged salad until I know it isn’t silently killing our rivers with its washed-off pesticides”.

S&TC is calling on Bakkavör to stop their discharge immediately until they can be certain they are not discharging pesticides at toxic levels in the surrounding environment.

NOTES FOR EDITORS

(1) Salmon and Trout Conservation

Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC) was established as the Salmon & Trout Association (S&TA) in 1903 to address the damage done to our rivers by the polluting effects of the Industrial Revolution. Since then, S&TC has worked to protect fisheries, fish stocks and the wider aquatic environment for the public benefit. S&TC has charitable status in England, Wales and Scotland and its charitable objectives empower it to address all issues affecting fish and the aquatic environment, supported by robust evidence from its scientific network, and to take the widest possible remit in protecting salmonid fish stocks and the aquatic environment upon which they depend.

www.salmon-trout.org

2) Case History

Fears about pesticides and other chemicals in the discharges from this salad washing plant have been long standing and culminated in June 2018 when S&TC issued the EA with a formal notification of environmental damage pursuant to the Environmental Liability Directive. This followed the results of S&TC’s invertebrate sampling at a site immediately downstream of Bakkavör’s outflows which indicated that chemicals were impacting the invertebrate communities.

The resulting EA investigation confirmed S&TC’s findings; that there were pesticides present, which were on the salad leaves imported by Bakkavör and which were being subsequently washed off and into the Upper Itchen. It appears that Bakkavör had not self-notified the EA of the presence of these chemicals. Once made aware of the pesticide threat the EA began a monitoring and sampling regime. This testing revealed the presence of dozens of chemicals, pesticides and herbicides being washed off the fresh produce at Bakkavör

Appendix 1:

Pesticide Minimum Reporting Value (MRV) and Limit of Quantification (LOQ), where pesticides highlighted in red indicate Environment Agency concerns current monitoring cannot prove they are not impacting the environment.

 

New CEO at Salmon & Trout Conservation

Nick Measham, CEO, Salmon & Trout Conservation,

I am proud to take on the responsibility for leading Salmon & Trout Conservation. Though I am a relatively recent recruit – I joined S&TC part time five years ago to help manage a project on the Upper Itchen and developed the Riverfly Census – I have had a life-long love of rivers and am fascinated about every aspect of them.

I come from West Bromwich, born at a time when my local river, the Tame, was one of the most polluted in Europe.  My earliest memories are of playing in small streams, catching bullheads, loach, sticklebacks and crayfish. I came to angling through this love of water – no one else in the family fished – and have always believed that fishing is a dividend, albeit a big one, of our stewardship of wild fish and their habitats. You can’t fish too happily without catching fish (though I often seem to…).

My central objective for S&TC may seem prosaic but it is to continue to grow the work we do as the only independent voice campaigning for wild fish and their habitats.  We will continue to take no Government money which too often leads to solutions which do not appear to put the environment first and which would conflict with our need to hold Government and its agencies to account.

We have been and will remain a small team with a reputation for getting things done.

We achieve what we do at a national scale by: being ruthlessly focused on a small range of critical issues and; working in close partnership/collaboration with many others.

This focus and partnership working will continue to form the framework for all we do in the short run and over the longer term too.

My immediate priority in this difficult year is to find the resources to increase the impact of our projects across our three current work streams (and protect our wonderful dedicated talented team). The Covid-19 impact is placing huge stress on funding, but the environmental demand has never been greater.

Our current projects are:

  • SmartRivers which builds on the Riverfly census to train volunteers to use invert samples to nail the water quality threats (pesticides, phosphate, sediment and sewage) threatening wild fish populationsWe are growing a SmartRivers “franchise” network across England, Wales and Scotland which will provide our water quality database with evidence of the pollutants stressing our rivers, their dependent wild fish and water life.
  • Salmon Farm Reform to prevent open-net salmon farming harming salmon and sea trout. In-shore open-net salmon farming kills wild salmon, sea trout, other fish and crustaceans. Lethality results from sea lice infestation, escaped farmed fish breeding with wild ones, and coastal waters being seriously polluted by fish waste; and also, ironically, by the quantity of chemicals needed to try to keep cage-farmed fish parasite and disease free. We champion effective regulation to control sea-lice parasites and eliminate escapes; we also seek relocation of open cage farms away from sensitive salmon and sea trout migration routes.
  • Water Action using evidence from the Riverfly Census and other science to drive policy reform on water quality (we are leading the charge on forcing action on pesticides in water and general agricultural abuse of water) and on abstraction for example.

Longer-term, the main challenges are to put in place effective regulation of agriculture and aquaculture to protect our wild fish and their habitats.

Our river fly evidence from the Riverfly Census and SmartRivers shows agricultural pollution rather than the industrial pollution of my childhood, to be the main threat to wild fish. We must ensure that farming practices stop damaging our rivers. We already have the regulation in place to do this, regulation which has been accepted by the NFU and other farmers’ bodies. This requires the Environment Agency and its sisters in Wales and Scotland to be given the resources and the will to stop bad farming practice through education and enforcement. It seems so straight forward but, somehow or other the UK’s Governments fail to deliver.

The second main challenge is aquaculture: simply put open-cage salmon farming in inshore marine locations is incompatible with wild fish. We are fighting hard to get the Scottish Government to regulate salmon farming to protect wild fish from the lethal plumes of sea lice from farmed fish and from genetically devastating escapes.

Underlying these threats to our rivers and coastal waters, is the whole more food/cheaper ethos which has dominated food production for decades. Countering this will require more than anglers, and this raises campaigning issues which we are only now beginning to understand and resource. We are an organisation of some 6000 members. We must retain and expand this base - numbers count politically - and add sources of support both people and funds.

I cannot promise you immediate success, but I can offer you the commitment to try to counter the damage being done to our wild fish and their waters. I hope I can count on your support in the years ahead.

 

NASCO 2020

Paul Knight reports on the 37th Annual Meeting of NASCO

The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO) met for its Annual Meeting in the first week of June, although this year, uniquely, all the meetings were held virtually by video link, with those not directly involved being able to listen in by phone.  Despite concerns that such a large international conference would be difficult to organise and run – it involved a Council and three separate Commissions – it actually went very smoothly, albeit with some of the more important issues, particularly from an NGO viewpoint, being postponed until Council is able to meet face-to-face, hopefully this autumn.

The main objective for the NGOs was to influence support for a full day Theme-based Special Session (TBSS) on salmon farming at next year’s Annual meeting.  This follows increasing concern right across the north Atlantic – and also the Pacific – that open-net salmon farming is the most damaging issue for wild salmon and sea trout that NASCO parties and jurisdictions actually have the power to do something about.  The NGOs were therefore delighted to receive unanimous support from all the Heads of Delegation for the TBSS in June next year, even agreeing to extending the meeting by a day if that is needed to accommodate the event.

The main concern driving the NGOs is that, despite NASCO resolutions going back at least 17 years, and a Council direction that open-net salmon farming should receive particular attention from relevant countries, the Implementation Plan process – the 5-year plans for salmon conservation put forward by each party and jurisdiction – clearly show a failure to protect wild fish from the adverse impacts of sea lice infestations killing migrating smolts, and escaped farmed fish interbreeding with natural salmon populations.  Two countries with significant salmon farming industries openly admit that they have no action to regulate sea lice emanating from open pen farms, while another has a national policy allowing 30% of wild salmon smolts to be killed before any serious regulation is considered.

So, the TBSS is a small but significant step along a very long road needed to turn around the juggernaut of political commitment so that appropriately effective regulations are introduced (in those jurisdictions where they are still absent) and are enforced rigorously to protect wild fish.  It is a sad admission that no country with both a salmon farming industry and wild salmon populations presently protect their natural fish stocks adequately enough.

Another pleasing aspect of this meeting was that, following several incidents last year when the NGOs felt they were being kept at arms’ length from important Council decisions, there were signs that our complaints had been taken onboard.  However, there are still serious issues to address for the NGOs at the autumn intersessional Council meeting, including:

  • The process for completing and reviewing the Implementation Plans – we want to see far more genuine commitment in these plans to protecting wild salmon, particularly from the harmful effects of salmon farming
  • An opportunity for NGOs to input fully to the upcoming external performance review, which will be an independent audit of NASCO’s performance since the previous review in 2012 in achieving its primary objective of protecting wild salmon.
  • Confirmation that NASCO is committed to a fully transparent process in all its work, including NGO access to and involvement in all Council and Commission decisions
  • Through our representation on the Implementation Plan and Annual Progress Report Review Group, NGO involvement in developing TBSSs for upcoming annual meetings
  • Following on the success of this virtual meeting, how much of NASCO’s work could be delivered in this way in future, so cutting down time and money resources in attending meetings, particularly those outside of the main annual event, which we agree should remain face-to-face under normal circumstances

In summary, therefore, a useful meeting where the NGOs achieved our main goal of a TBSS on salmon farming next year.  Much still to do and agree, and we now look forward to the face-to-face intersessional Council meeting in the autumn – provided we are able to travel again by then, of course.

The SAMARCH Project International Salmonid Coastal and Marine Telemetry Workshop

1200px-Flag_of_Europe
SAMARCHLogo

The "Blue Book"

Based on a workshop organised by Salmon & Trout Conservation and Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust on behalf of the SAMARCH Project and the Atlantic Salmon Trust in Southampton, UK, on the 5th and 6th November 2019.

SAMARCH is a five-year project with a grant of €5.8m from the EU’s France Channel England Interreg Channel programme.

Download HERE

Increase in abundance: A dangerously simplistic view of river health

Species richness and assemblage gives a far more accurate assessment of invertebrate communities………..

Dr Janina Gray, Head of Science & Environmental Policy, responds to a recent article in The Times,

Your article Boom in freshwater bugs bucks trend of disappearing insects (April 24th) sets a dangerously simplistic view of the health of our rivers and water life.

The article reports only one metric – increase in abundance – and not the diversity of species present. Species richness and assemblage gives a far more accurate assessment of invertebrate communities and consequently a river’s health.  For instance, our work has shown that chironomid species can have very high abundances, but they are an indicator of poor water quality, and so their abundance/biomass should not be applauded.

Using abundance data is not a metric which can be used to infer ‘bugs are not disappearing’. S&TC’s Riverfly Census, which recorded 34,000 insects from 480 species across 12 English rivers, showed that pesticides, sediment and excess phosphate are adversely impacting all our rivers to some extent, and are especially damaging to our chalkstreams – once the byword for pristine water quality.  We therefore strongly suspect that your article reports false positives on the true state of freshwater biodiversity and health, by inferring an increase in abundance of pollution-tolerant bugs is a good thing. In order to understand the true state of freshwater bugs, studies must use species richness and abundance data together to form an accurate assessment.

Reporting with a purpose

S&TC is a national organisation and we use evidence from local case studies to help instigate policy changes that will benefit UK wild fish populations. But, this is just part of the value - we are making all our Riverfly Census findings available so they can be used to inform local management and drive action.

Each individual river report is based on three years of surveying data. Where possible, we have linked up our findings with other existing literature and data. Using the available information we suggest where local fishing and/or conservation groups can focus their management efforts to achieve the best health outcomes for each of the 12 original Census rivers.

Some of our local reports can be found on the slider below. Alternatively, visit the Riverfly Census page and scroll down to the map.

Milk. A serious environmental threat?

So, here’s the shocking news about the potential of milk to pollute rivers.

Paul Knight, S&TC CEO writes,

One of the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic has been that the demand for milk has slumped and so dairy farmers have had to pour away their excess, cows still have to be milked, after all, so production cannot just stop.  In Wales, home of the new crop of mega dairy units, the rules state that unwanted milk should be poured into slurry storage if possible, and only sprayed onto fields if absolutely necessary.

Slurry from diary units is a consistent polluter of our rivers. It is sprayed onto fields and the first decent rain shower takes it straight into the nearest watercourse as run-off.  We have heard reports some farmers even dispose of slurry directly into rivers, often at night in an attempt to hide their nefarious activity. The results can be devastating for local fish stocks, because of oxygen depletion due to the micro-organisms feeding on the organic material in slurry.

So, here’s the shocking news about the potential of milk to pollute rivers.  Take treated human sewage as our baseline. A biological oxygen demand (BOD) of up to 60 mg of oxygen per litre of pollutant.  From this, these impacts have the following BOD:

No-one is yet suggesting that milk is finding its way into rivers, but the purpose of the above table is to show just how potentially polluting these agricultural waste products can be if they enter water courses. It is not so much that they are directly toxic to fish and water life, it is that they extract the oxygen out of the system to the extent that, in serious cases, all affected life will die as a consequence.

This is why S&TC is demanding government agencies are properly resourced to monitor watercourses effectively and enforce existing legislation.  We have the legislation, we just need the political will and funding to deal with those farmers who continue to pollute our rivers and damage wild fish stocks.

We are also determined to influence post-Brexit agricultural policies that incentivise farmers to invest in such infrastructure as new storage facilities for slurry or silage that don’t leak. But, while we lobby for these incentives to help farmers, we need the existing laws and regulations to be enforced. We are being fair to fish, not unfair to farmers.

Chalk-Streams First

Abstraction is a major threat to UK rivers but is, arguably, at its greatest in relation to the chalk-streams, a globally unique ecological wonder located mainly in England, especially the highly populated south of England.  S&TC Water Action campaign is working to counter the abstraction threat, terrifyingly highlighted in a raft of recent Government plans for water supply.

This threat requires urgent action across a number of fronts. We have joined forces with the Rivers Trust, the Angling Trust, WWF and the Wild Trout Trust to promote a scheme called Chalk-Streams First (CSF) to save the Chilterns’ chalk-streams. The scheme obviously only addresses a fraction of our threatened chalk-streams, but it is a start and may have application elsewhere. It is not the whole solution, but it does have an important local role to play.

Charles Rangley-Wilson, a tireless campaigner for the UK’s chalk-streams, explains the problem and CSF’s clever solution to the Chiltern streams plight.

It’s high time we put chalk-streams first

Ten years ago, I worked on a campaign with WWF focusing on the terrible impact of abstraction in English chalk-streams. We called it Rivers on the Edge, because they were … on the edge of survival. In a speech on the banks of the River Mimram in the heart of the Chilterns I highlighted how locals there and on the neighbouring River Beane had been protesting about their drying rivers for at least twenty years. They still are. For too long it’s been Groundhog Day with our over-abstracted chalk-streams. But finally, we may just dare to hope that we can fix this problem once and for all, at least in the Chilterns.

It’s high time we did.

Chalk-streams are paradisiacal rivers. Their qualities of clear, cool water, equable flows, and abundant wildlife all derive from that qualifying word, chalk. We all know it from black-boards. Chalk is common enough geologically too: there are great swathes of it across eastern Europe. But the unique way in which the English chalk lies at the surface and was worn away but not completely worn away by the last Ice Age has given us eight-tenths of the global total of the rivers we know as true chalk-streams. The remainder are found over the channel in northern France.

That’s some natural heritage. The unspoilt chalk-stream is a watery Garden of Eden. With their chequered beds of water crowfoot swaying in the marbled currents, their banks decked out in a bunting of marsh marigolds, water mint, and flag iris, they are utterly beautiful in a way that almost defines the southern English countryside. Chalk-streams are rich in wildlife too: under the surface there are brown trout and grayling, white-clawed crayfish, freshwater shrimp and all sorts of darting insects; in and over the plashy meadows there are snipe and otters, water voles and mayflies. Chalk-streams are an English Okavango, an EnglishGreat Barrier Reef, an English rainforest.

Which ought to mean we should value this heritage as highly as we would any other globally-unique eco-system.

Sadly, we don’t. Or we haven’t. Instead these unique rivers are too often abused: some to the extent that they have dried up and ceased to be rivers at all. In May 2017 WWF commissioned me to take photographs of the same Chilterns chalk-streams we had mourned in 2010 … what was left of them at least. They were dry (again) or hardly flowing at a time of year when chalk-streams are usually at the fullest. The worst I’d ever seen. The rivers were dry, or mere trickles, far downstream of their winterbourne headwaters, far downstream of ancient mills, and old market towns and "No Fishing" signs and even Environment Agency flow-gauging weirs.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, how bad it got in 2017 we can at least say that some progress has been made: no-one is denying there’s a problem anymore. No-one is questioning the link between abstraction and drying chalk-streams or suggesting that further research is needed before we can be sure. There have even been some moves to lessen abstraction.

But the real problem at the heart of all this is that southern England is full of people and water is scarce. The Water Companies have an obligation to supply water to the public. They have a right to abstract it, and although nowadays the Environment Agency has the power to revoke licences they deem to be environmentally damaging, in reality alternatives to the water in the chalk aquifer are very difficult and expensive to realise. So, for year after year we make incremental progress without ever fixing the problem.

Until now?

A new idea called Chalk-Streams First has the potential to completely re-naturalise the flows in all of the Chilterns chalk-streams with potentially only a small net loss to overall public water supply. It is a scheme that could be delivered in the near future using as its basis infrastructure that is already planned for and costed in the water company management plans.

Chalk-Streams First is supported by a coalition of The Rivers Trust, The Angling Trust, WWF UK, Salmon & Trout Conservation and The Wild Trout Trust and we are calling for the idea to be included in OFWAT's multi-million pound strategic review of water resources across the south east.

Thus far the proposal has been independently reviewed by expert hydrological engineer Colin Fenn whose key conclusion was …

“ … that the draft Chalk-Streams First proposition, as put, identifies a feasible and a viable solution to the problem of chronic flow depletion in the internationally-rare and precious chalk-streams of the Chiltern Hills; it being to allow flows in the upstream chalk-streams of the Chilterns to run unreduced by abstraction, with water being taken from the correspondingly enhanced flows in the downstream Colne and Lee, and as needs may be from a range of other less-environmentally fragile sources to meet the needs of demand centres in the Chilterns, using Affinity Water’s already planned ‘Supply 2040 scheme.”

Full Report HERE

The Chalk-Streams First coalition is calling for an urgent, and detailed and fully independent investigation of the idea as part of OFWAT’s strategic investigation of water resources across the South East England.

It’s high time we put Chalk-Streams First.

How Chalk-Streams First Works

If Chalk-Streams First sounds too good to be true, it is also relatively easy to explain how it works. First you need to understand the relationship between the level of the underground body of water - the aquifer – and the flow in the river. It is both a very complex relationship – there are all sorts of nuances and no two valleys are the same – and yet a rather simple one which can boiled down to: the higher the groundwater, the higher the flow in the chalk-stream. There’s even an equation that is remarkably accurate across many streams: a 10% increase in the groundwater level equates to a 25% increase in the river flow. And as the groundwater level increases, so the chalk-stream rises further and further up the valley.

To illustrate it, let’s see the chalk aquifer and chalk-stream as a bucket with holes up the sides. Those holes up the sides represent the length of the river: the highest few holes are the winterbourne headwaters, and below them are the middle and lower reaches down to the bottom of the bucket.

The bucket itself is the chalk aquifer. Now we can fill the bucket with a hose: the water coming out of the hose is rainfall. The water spilling out through the holes: that's the river flow. If we turn the tap up really hard so that the bucket starts to fill: that's the winter recharge period. If we turn the tap down so that the bucket starts to empty: that's the summer discharge period.

The real chalk aquifer rises and falls seasonally, just like this simplified model. Aquifers fill in the winter when inflow tends to exceed outflow (even if the main natural outflow is the river, a real chalk-stream valley has other forms of natural outflow … transpiration and evaporation and some movement of water through the chalk underground) and discharge over the summer months, reaching a low point in early autumn, before the winter re-charge period begins. Winter rainfall is key therefore: the chart below from the River Tarrant shows how important winter rainfall is for the replenishing of groundwater levels.

The real chalk-stream flows like this too. The flow increases as the bucket fills: just as the river flow increases as the groundwater builds in winter. The river (represented by the holes up the side) gets longer, too. And then as we turn the tap down through ‘the summer’ the holes at the top falter to a trickle and then one by one they stop altogether as the water level drops further. That's the upper reaches of the river drying up and the overall flow decreasing, seasonally.

Notice how the water spurts farthest from the holes lower down the bucket and also as the level in the bucket falls during the summer discharge the flow from all the holes added together diminishes too. That's because the flow rate is a response to the hydrostatic pressure in the bucket. The lower the level, the lower the flow: just like in a real chalk-stream.

Now to see the impact of abstraction … let’s set the tap so that all the holes are flowing and the water coming in from the hose matches the water going out through the holes.

Then let's drill another hole in the side of the bucket and create a new outflow that represents abstraction, with some of the water going in a different direction towards “public water supply”.

As soon as that hole is tapped, the bucket will start to empty until it reaches a new state of equilibrium at a lower level: that is the impact of abstraction. The new abstraction hole has supplanted the top three river holes (shortened the river) and it has lessened the flow in all the others.

It’s very simple: what goes in goes out. Under natural conditions it goes out down the river (plus the transpiration and evaporation I have mentioned). Under the unnatural conditions of an additional out-flow called “abstraction” the flow in the river diminishes: in this case by the exact amount abstracted, in the real world by an amount that is proportional to but not quite the exact amount abstracted (because of the other forms of outflow).

It stands to reason therefore that if we stop abstracting – or in this case put a bung in the “abstraction” hole in the bucket – the aquifer level will rebound and the river will eventually recover to the same level it was at before the abstraction. This is called “flow recovery” and it is the key idea behind Chalk-Streams First.

Detailed modelling of flow recovery in chalk-streams in Dorset (the River Tarrant) and Berkshire (the Kennet) – both slope-face streams similar to the Chilterns rivers – suggests that for every unit not abstracted from the groundwater in the upper valley, approximately 80 to 85% of that unit will become surface flow in the river.

So …. Let’s stop taking water from the aquifer. Let’s allow it to flow down the chalk-streams. Then let’s take it from the lower end of the catchment instead, after the chalk-streams (and the fish, birds, plants and insects) have had use of it first.

Hence we have called the scheme Chalk-Streams First.

Chalk-Streams First very simply makes use of the way chalk-streams function by moving the point of abstraction from the groundwater at the top of the valley, to the surface water at the bottom of the catchment where it can be taken into storage in the big reservoirs around London.

The obvious question which follows this simple idea is, how do we provide water to those towns formerly supplied by the groundwater, when all the water is now downhill at the bottom of the Rivers Colne and Lea?

The answer is a pipeline scheme called "SUPPLY 2040" which is already included in Affinity Water's business plan. Affinity Water plans to build this pipeline (in fact a development and reinforcement of existing infrastructure with additional components and sections) anyway, to move water from their own excess zone south of the Thames to the deficit zone in the north. It is also needed for many other strategic infrastructure schemes currently under consideration, including Abingdon Reservoir and other options.

SUPPLY 2040 would enable the water that has been liberated to flow down the chalk-streams (or its equivalent volume) back up to the towns currently supplied directly from the groundwater. Better still SUPPLY 2040 could relatively easily be shifted forward to become SUPPLY 2030, meaning the re-naturalisation of all the Chilterns chalk-streams is within reach in less than ten years.

What we need now is a really detailed, independent investigation of the viability of the scheme. The Chalk-Streams First coalition has asked RAPID to run that investigation (RAPID has been set up by OFWAT to administer the strategic review of water resources). So far, the reception of the idea has been really encouraging.

But the more this scheme is talked about, the better. We need it out there in the conversation. If Chalk-Streams First can work in the Chilterns it could eventually become a model for how we save other chalk-streams in the future.

It’s high time we put Chalk-Streams First.

To read the proposal click HERE.