Saturday, 10 October 2009

River quality issues - shall we bleat after all the decisions have been made?

A month ago, the newspapers were full of stories about the "disgusting state" of our rivers in Britain. Only 5 rivers, or 0.08% of the total, were described as in "pristine" condition, while 117 rivers were considered "bad". The media quoted an Environment Agency report, which proves to be non-existent; the facts come from the current and ongoing assessment of river quality around the country in preparation for the eleven River Basin Management Plans that need to be finalised for Decemember.

The reality is that our rivers have actually never been cleaner. Not since medieval times, anyway. The Water Quality web-page of the Environment Agency starts "River quality has improved greatly since 1990"
"Rivers shockingly clean" doesn't sell newspapers though.

So what exactly is going on?

In the past, Britain measured its water quality using a simple General Quality Assessment (known as the GQA) which measured biological, chemical and nutrient load. In the future, we will use a wider range of indicators standardised across Europe. Because there are more really, really remote rivers across the whole of Europe - think particularly in northern Scandinavia - which have never had any industrial or human impact, the term "pristine" is used to describe these almost totally untouched watercourses.

In fact, it is worth remembering, before we start using the wider range of measures, that Britain's rivers are remarkably clean. 72% of England's rivers were in the top two biological categories ("excellent" or "good") compared to just 55% in 1990. In Wales, it's 88% of rivers. The chemical and nutrient scores are equally as impressive.

It really isn't fair to look at the rivers in England and complain that they aren't as clean as rivers in remote parts of Finland, Sweden or north-western Spain.

However, this doesn't mean we can sit back and relax. Almost every week there are news reports of dreadful water pollution incidents, including a spill of cyanide recently into the River Trent. The media has reported that the UK looks set to miss many of its EU water quality targets for 2015. It has been estimated that it will cost £9 billion to get our rivers up to standard. An investment of even a fraction of this sum could have significant impacts on other spending plans by authorities in the UK. It is critical that boating interests are represented publicly in the discussions and lobbying, but in the UK our voice seems absent.

While boating interests - mainly commercial - are active in Europe, campaigning on a variety of issues related to the WFD, in the UK, NGO action on rivers seems to include everyone but the boaters! Perhaps there is a sense, from various quarters, that boaters are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Actions over the years to reduce boating activities on various waterways suggest that there remains a gap between boaters and environmental interests. Let me think, are you happy for the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust to be speaking up for river users in that area? It is notable that although the RSPB and angling interests are directly involved with the novel Our Rivers campaign, there are no boating organisations mentioned as headline sponsors. We boaters are simply conspicuous by our absence. If the wind blows against us in the future, don't bleat about how unfair it is: everyone else seems to appreciate how important these issues are. We, on the other hand, prefer to blog about idiots pulling out our mooring pins or fascists blocking the water point.

Bleat now and bleat loud!

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