What we're doing to protect and restore freshwater in the UK

The Rivers Trust

As part of our series of blogs on our roadmap to improving Our Natural World, Simon Wightman, Esmée's lead on freshwater, writes about our support and work with others towards protecting and restoring freshwater environments in the UK.

We have a complicated relationship with freshwater in the UK. The value we place on it is not constant. Yet it underpins all life and when supply is limited, the effects are devastating. At the same time, we have seen increasing examples in this country of what happens when too much rain falls on landscapes that cannot cope with it, causing floods that drive people from their homes and disrupt entire communities. The climate crisis presents a future of extremes, where both water shortages and floods occur with increasing frequency.

Freshwater in the UK

All that rain must go somewhere, and we have over 200,000km of streams and rivers in the UK, as well as groundwater stores, lakes and wetlands. These are home to amazing wildlife – from otters to kingfishers, and newts to mayflies.

Despite a close affinity with water and wetlands, as a nation we have failed to care for them. In England, only 14% of rivers meet the standards for good ecological status. The reasons for this are multiple but include pollution from sewage and storm overflows, as well as excess nutrients and chemicals from agriculture. A recent survey (see Troubled Waters report) by UK conservation charities showed that people’s near universal interest in freshwater habitats was not matched by an understanding of the threats facing them. 43% thought that UK rivers were in good condition and when asked about the main threats, the most popular answer was litter and plastic pollution, with the real main causes, pollution from farming and inadequate sewage treatment, falling well down the list.

In 2020, Esmée identified freshwater as a priority under our new strategy. As well as being a vital resource and habitat for wildlife, freshwater is a thread that connects our wider interest in how food is produced, how nature can be restored at scale and how people can be empowered to shape the places where they live – irrespective of their background, wealth, or privilege.

Understanding what’s needed to restore freshwater environments in the UK

We worked with Cardiff University Water Research Institute to get the views of over 100 individuals involved in work on freshwater across the UK, including landowners, regulators, water companies, environmental organisations and recreational groups on what they thought should be priorities for action. Areas of consensus included the need to better align resources so that funds can focus on delivering ‘best value’ rather than ‘least cost’ interventions.

Despite being under no illusions about the scale of the challenge, participants found reasons to be optimistic. Public interest in the natural environment seems to be on the rise. Large businesses, particularly in the food and drink industry, are recognising the risk of freshwater pressures in their supply chain and showing a willingness to work with others to address them. Individual farmers and growers are showing leadership and a willingness to share their experience of what works. As governments, businesses and communities take stock of what needs to happen to create resilience in the face of climate change, opportunities to deliver benefits for the water environment are emerging.

What we're doing

Backing innovative organisations making change

There are environmental charities that have been working on freshwater for a long time, innovating, building new partnerships, and influencing decision-makers. The most straightforward way we can make an impact help is to back these organisations, contributing to their core costs so they can concentrate on driving the change we all want to see. We are proud to work with The Rivers Trust movement, Afonydd Cymru, the River Restoration Centre, the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management, Freshwater Habitats Trust, The Wildlife Trusts and others. We have sought to help in other ways, such as making a bridging loan facility available to small rivers trusts in England, enabling them to make use of large capital grant schemes that pay in arrears.

We saw in a previous blog on financing nature's recovery how we can build new models for investing in freshwater stewardship.

Supporting community-led change

One of the most influential changes in the debate about freshwater management in recent years has been the emergence of community campaign groups like Ilkley Clean River Group. These show the impact that pollution has on communities, whether that be through making river users sick or affecting their enjoyment through the chronic deterioration of the places that they care about. Their campaigns have resonated with the wider public, raising questions about social justice and keeping the issue alive with the media and government. These groups are organised and determined but, unfortunately, are not constituted in a way that enables us to fund them directly. Therefore, we are using other tools and commissioning a PR and communications agency to work with them, to better understand their communications needs and provide strategic insight and capacity.

The environment sector can find it difficult to build strong evidence of community support. Surfers Against Sewage recognise that freshwater campaigns led by wild swimmers, paddleboarders, anglers and naturalists have a lot in common with the community that coalesced around polluted beaches in the 1980s and 1990s. We are helping them to expand their work with river and lake users, highlighting the need for more inland designated Bathing Waters and the challenges posed by poor water quality. We have also worked with them to provide a small ‘fighting fund’ that will enable the groups they work with to secure small sums of money for things like water testing and events.

Public funding for monitoring the health of the environment and responding to pollution incidents has declined across the UK over several years. Without effective environmental monitoring, we won’t know if things are getting better or if interventions are working. Citizen science can’t replace robust government-funded programmes and is still dependent on regulators having the capacity and willingness to take action against polluters but initiatives like Wild Fish’s SmartRivers enable a level of analysis that would not otherwise have been possible and provide evidence for restorative action. Initiatives, such as the water industry funded CaSTCo programme aim to develop a framework for catchment monitoring that citizen science will be an important part of. As well as WildFish (formerly Salmon and Trout Conservation), we are working with Zoological Society of London, The Rivers Trust and Freshwater Biological Association to ensure the sustainability of high-quality programmes and support for the volunteers who contribute to it.

Sewage and storm water management

The biggest drivers of deteriorating water quality are pollution from agriculture and inadequate sewage treatment. The volume of untreated sewage that flows from sewers straight into rivers has made the headlines in recent years. It seems clear that infrastructure that was designed to provide an emergency release valve during the biggest storms is now being operated in a more routine way. It seems equally clear that companies have not invested enough in the infrastructure they need to cope with the volumes they manage and, in some cases, there appear to have been deliberate attempts by companies to conceal the scale of the problem. It is right that political and public pressure has been applied and that companies are now committing to addressing the problem. However, the risk is that focusing solely on the role of water companies in causing pollution from storm overflows fails to highlight wider systemic failures in how we manage stormwater and drainage.

We commissioned the Chartered Institute for Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) to convene its members to discuss wider issues around storm water management, highlighting the changes that are needed across government departments to address the contribution, including poor design of highways drainage and the central role better town planning has in solving this pollution. They published a report on storm overflows covering the wider issues and proposed solutions to coincide with Defra’s consultation on its plan for addressing pollution from storm overflows.

New place-based partnerships

A major component of our freshwater work over the next five years will involve finding and supporting projects in places where exciting approaches to freshwater stewardship and restoration are being developed, those that have unusual partnerships and creative ways of engaging people at their core. This also will contribute to our aim for Creative, Confident Communities. We will co-design programmes of support designed to deliver local objectives but ensure adequate resources are available to collate learning and use it to inform approaches elsewhere and to advocate for a more supportive policy framework. We have a new member of the team joining us in September to help take this work forward.

What more can we do?

We hope that this quick whistle stop tour through some of the projects we’re working on with our partners has been of interest. If you have ideas about things we should focus on then do get in touch: simon@esmeefairbairn.org.uk.

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