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River Pollution: Solving the Wicked Problem

River Pollution
Mark Lloyd

Mark Lloyd

Chief Executive Officer, The Rivers Trust

River Pollution is not getting better

As we all know, our rivers nationally are in poor shape and, with a few exceptions for local success stories, they are not getting better. 

Fish—and other aquatic wildlife—need plentiful flows of cool, clean water and natural habitat to complete their complex lifecycles.  All too often, they find themselves in straightened rivers with concrete banks, in a trickle of warm, poisonous water and unable to find places to hide, feed and breed.  

River flow, water quality and natural habitat are all interrelated. Low flows mean less wet habitat, higher temperatures, less oxygen and a higher concentration of chemicals. Too much surface water from paved surfaces and degraded soils leads to damaging flooding, overflowing sewers, agricultural pollutants and less water recharging aquifers. Natural rivers and catchments are, by contrast, much more able to purify polluted water, reduce flood peaks, sustain flows during droughts and provide homes for a wide variety of wildlife.

The Agricultural Problem

Sewage pollution has rightly received a lot of attention in recent years, but in truth, the biggest polluting sector is agriculture. Even if we cleaned up all the sewage effluent, many of our rivers would remain polluted with soil, slurry and agrichemicals.

Rivers are the frontline of the climate and biodiversity crises. The biggest impacts of climate change on people’s lives and wellbeing and the economy will be floods and drought. This year, a summer of wildfires, record-high temperatures and empty reservoirs was swiftly followed by damaging surface water causing flooding in several of our cities when the heavens finally opened. Biodiversity loss is occurring faster in freshwater than in any other environment—in a country that is already one of the most nature-depleted on Earth.

In short, there are too many complex problems for us to solve one at a time, with only one organisation responsible for each one. These issues require us to step out of our siloes and take a systems approach to managing our natural environment as groups of organisations. We need to build resilience as part of our contribution to mitigating climate change, not approach it as a separate workstream. We need to reduce surface water run-off while recharging our aquifers, allow nature to treat polluted water and slow the flow of water that causes homes to flood and sewers to overflow.

Sustainable Infrastructure

In the past, we have thrown money at engineering solutions, such as flood defences or vast, concrete stormwater tanks at sewage works.  These solutions have predictable cost/benefit ratios and they can be opened by cutting a red ribbon, but in a changing climate, they can quickly become inadequate. They also only achieve one objective, which tends to mean that the cost falls only on one organisation.

Nature-based Solutions

It is increasingly clear that more engineering is not the answer and that we should instead, look to nature-based solutions. What does this mean? It means restoring soils, planting buffer strips of trees alongside rivers and hedges, installing sustainable drainage systems as standard, replacing Tarmac with permeable surfaces, re-wiggling rivers and reconnecting them with their floodplains, removing dams and weirs and using water treatment wetlands to treat sewage and farm effluent.

We need to bring together budgets for flood defence, water quality, nature recovery, agricultural subsidies, mental and physical health and levelling-up to deliver actions at a large scale that solve these problems, all at once. This is about good governance, which includes stronger regulation, but also requires us to build a strategic framework for collaboration.

Local Catchment Partnerships need more funding to do their complex job and we also need to create a regional tier of organisations that can converge big funding streams to fund action that addresses all these agendas. There are several groupings of organisations being formed at a regional scale, but they need a more formal mandate from the Government and more powers to direct funding if they are to get us out of pilot purgatory.  

Sustainable Finance

As well as good governance, we need to build sustainable finance. In Lancashire, The Rivers Trust has led a pioneering project to reduce flood risk in Churchtown by investing green finance in roughing up the catchment with hedges, trees, wetlands, restored peat and leaky dams. The investors will then be paid back, over ten years, with funds from buyers of ecosystem services. We are replicating this project in five other catchments in England and Wales. We could do it in hundreds of catchments with more project development support.

Unlocking the power of green finance requires robust data so that funds can be better directed to solve the biggest problems and the buyers of ecosystem services can know whether they have got what they paid for. Monitoring budgets have been cut repeatedly in the past decade and we simply don’t have the data to tell us what is going wrong, where and why.

So, the Rivers Trust is working with 24 partners, including 12 water companies, on a £7.1 million transformational project to monitor our water environment more effectively. This will bring together multiple sources of data—currently held separately—into a common framework and present this information in a user-friendly format. To this, we will add thousands of citizen science data points that will provide a far more detailed picture of the health of rivers. This needs to become business as usual throughout the country over the next five years if we are to clean up our rivers.

Every water catchment area should be mapped with its opportunities for delivery of nature recovery, flood protection, aquifer recharge, health benefits, pollution prevention, carbon sequestration, soil health remediation, addressing social deprivation, etc. Then, the funding for the achievement of those objectives should be co-ordinated to deliver interventions in an intelligent, strategic way and be targeted where they can have the greatest impact. 

We need more certainty, long-term strategic planning, greater coherence and a robust governance framework. Our rivers are in poor health because we have had too many short-term initiatives, a lack of data, the chaos of single-issue plans that aren’t joined up and a failure to enforce regulations.

This article first appeared as part of our December Journal. To read the rest of the journal please click here.

December Journal
Our December Journal

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