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'Droughts in the summer and floods in the winter': the catastrophic state of British rivers

The i logo The i 02/12/2019
a bridge over a river © Provided by The i

How clean is your local river? In Scotland, less than half of rivers are in good condition – and according to the Environment Agency, just 14 per cent of English rivers are in good health.

An investigation in August found that no English river can be certified as safe for wild swimming, with 86 per cent falling short of the EU’s ecological standard.

A number of factors affect whether a river is in good or bad health, explains Simon Evans, chief executive of the Wye and Usk Foundation. “The chemical parameters – does it have too much phosphate in it? Is it too warm, does it have enough oxygen in it?” Then there’s the biology – “does it have the right plant, fish and invertebrates communities in it?”.

James Rebanks wearing a suit and tie © Provided by The i

“If it ticks all of those boxes then it is defined as being in good health. If one of those is wrong, then it’s not in good health. It’s one out, all out.”

Rewiggling rivers

When it comes to a river’s relationship with the land around it, the shape also matters. In Cumbria, fell farmer James Rebanks has embarked on a “river rewiggling” project for a portion of the Eden that runs across his land and was straightened in the 1920s. That was to increase draining speed, but making the river meander again has had benefits.

“Our land isn’t flooding as badly,” says Rebanks, author of The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District. “By widening the channel, you can have twice as much rain.” He adds: “What I would have thought of 10 years ago as a project spoiling my land is the opposite.”

James Rebanks is concerned about the effects of human interference on rivesPhoto: Eamonn McCabe

Effects are also felt downriver. The Eden flows into Carlisle, parts of which have been built on a flood plain. “The flood is getting to Carlisle quicker than it used to 100 years ago,” says Rebanks. This is probably because “we have straightened all the rivers and stripped out the ways that would have diffused the river’s power”.

Historically high flood levels

Carlisle has flooded at historically high levels twice since the millennium, and “people are coming upstream and asking how we can undo what has been done”.

Farming methods contribute too. “We have started to farm using soil as a medium rather than as a living entity,” says Evans.

“The result is that the soil gets compacted. When it rains, the water runs off, and you get big floods. Because the water hasn’t sunk into the soil, it hasn’t charged the aquifer. As a result, you have droughts in the summer, and floods in the winter.”

The Government’s “making space for water” option of the Countryside Stewardship scheme is encouraging better practices, and the National Trust’s Riverlands initiative hopes to revive five rivers over 600 miles, at a cost of £10m.

Giving ecology a kickstart

In Somerset, Ben Eardley, a National Trust project manager, has recently completed a restoration project on a tributary to the River Aller. As well as reconfiguring the channel of water and moving 400 tonnes of earth, the Trust’s team “put woody debris across the site to give the ecology a kickstart”.

Having restored the river to a “pre-disturbance state”, it is coming back to life. “After a few days we saw a dragonfly on the site,” says Eardley.

Each river has its own ecology, and different layouts lend themselves better to different creatures. A river that meanders is a more inviting environment.

River deep

“If a river is straight it doesn’t have a pool sequence, which means there’s nowhere for the fish to shelter and spawn,” explains Evans. When a bendy river is in flood, “there are places on the inside of the corners for the fish to escape to. When it is in drought, there are deep holes they can hide in”.

Rivers differ according to their geology, and the chalk streams that run from Dorset to Norfolk are particularly endangered. In 2016, a survey by Salmon and Trout Conservation UK found that of 120 sites, only 14 were not impacted by human activity.

The former Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey is campaigning to raise the profile of these forgotten rivers, telling a newspaper earlier this year that “the state of them is catastrophic”. Chalk streams face the same problems that other rivers face, but their high water quality makes them vulnerable.

“You put a pipe into a chalk aquifer and it comes out looking like it would out of a tap,” says Mike Blackmore, head of project delivery for Wessex Rivers Trust. “We are over-extracting chalk aquifers all over the country.” In some areas, the chalk streams have dried up entirely. Eventually, the water will come back, “but how long does it take for the wildlife to recover?”.

The hubris of refining waterways

We haven’t got rivers right in this country, says Eardley. “What we think of as rivers and streams aren’t those in their natural state – they are disconnected from the landscape around them.” As humans, our folly has been to attempt to refine nature, says Blackmore. “There was this idea that nature is inefficient, and that we could make it better. It’s hubris.”

Perhaps we take our rivers for granted. “We live in a wet country and there are rivers everywhere,” says Blackmore. “But they are a barometer of our wider environment. When we turn the tap on, we don’t connect that with the water flowing in the river down the road. That’s the challenge.”

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