BART: Empowering river conservation through community collected data

Bristol Avon Rivers Trust (BART) is a charity which delivers education, land and river management advice and practical river restoration work throughout the Bristol Avon catchment. Founded in March 2012, as part of the UK-wide River’s Trust, their aim is to reconnect communities to their local rivers for the benefit of people and wildlife in the area – advocating for a present and future where everyone can enjoy the rivers.

Their work involves promoting the need for conservation through public events, as well as actively working to enhance the status and health of the area’s water bodies through a diverse range of projects. From agriculture advice, school education programmes, to natural flood management, to habitat management, BART’s activities work to mitigate the environmental challenges introduced by urbanisation, growing populations, and poor land management.

Bristol City Council has pledged to reach a positive status for water contaminant classification by 2027 as part of the Water Framework Directive, a status they are currently failing due to water quality problems as a consequence of human intervention – such as pesticide seepage, drainage and plumbing issues in agriculture – as well as the increasingly varied climates which has introduced wetter winters and therefore increased pollutants in rivers due to urban run-off.

Simon Hunter, Chief Executive Officer at BART explains; “BART aims to conserve and enhance the status of our waterbodies for current and future generations. We pride ourselves on getting our feet wet, getting our hands dirty, and getting things done. We couldn’t do this without the help of our fantastic volunteers.”

Amongst the exciting and positive conservation activities that BART coordinates is the Bristol Avon WaterBlitz event. WaterBlitz is a global citizen science event coordinated by FreshWater Watch and was introduced to the Bristol Avon by BART during 2016. Taking place annually, the event involves members of the public collecting samples of their local rivers to monitor water quality and river health. With more ‘citizen scientists’ getting involved with each event and hundreds of samples taken every year, this project has truly taken Bristol by storm.

By coordinating this project, BART not only hope to raise awareness of the health challenges facing our rivers and get communities involved in protecting their local nature, but the data collected is extremely valuable.

This project has produced a large-scale data bank of information used to indicate at high-level a summary of the health of local rivers, streams and brooks. The datasets are diverse, including a range of metrics, such as nutrient levels and the presence of litter, as well as different data formats, from numerical values to photographs of the measurement sites. The BART team can use this data to not only prioritise where they should focus their improvement work, but also to monitor at high-level, the changes in river health.

Creating a partnership

BART identified that they needed a way to effectively visualise this data, to continue engaging the community, and to help themselves and the public view the data in an accessible and easy way that helped showcase its value. As a small team, they decided to look externally for someone who could help them develop this project.

Tim Culmer, Senior Consultant at Riskaware, had been involved with WaterBlitz as a citizen scientist in the past and knew Simon Hunter at BART, through a mutual passion for surfing. Through their connection our team got involved with BART to create a solution for their WaterBlitz data and establish a relationship for future projects. We worked with the team at BART to understand what they needed from a data visualisation tool and how we could help.

Tim Culmer continues; “As someone who loves the outdoors, I jumped at the opportunity to help BART with the great work that they do. I believe projects like WaterBlitz are really important as they help people appreciate the natural areas we have around us. We’ve worked hard to make this tool as engaging as possible to encourage as many people as we can to take part in WaterBlitz and raise awareness about the problems faced by our rivers.”

Drawing on our expertise in working with GIS data and creating powerful visualisation tools, we have successfully created a platform with a user-friendly interface to help BART display and manage their WaterBlitz data in a more meaningful, contextualised way. This tool will be displayed on BART’s website to allow the public to explore their local rivers and by the BART team to guide further investigation so they can efficiently target their resources for restoration, improvement, conservation, and education.

Exciting future projects

BART have seen great success in their WaterBlitz project, with the number of volunteers increasing every year. They are also involved in many other projects to monitor and aid the restoration of river health, including implementing river restoration and nature-based solutions, as well as carrying out ecological monitoring including Riverfly Monitoring. As part of Riverfly Monitoring, BART has established a network of volunteers that collect data every month from over 60 sites across the Bristol Avon.

One upcoming project, eDNA, consists of using DNA sequencing technology to analyse biological fragments within a water sample collected from the river and identify the present organisms. This project is highly anticipated by many organisations in the conservation and environmental protection community and has the potential to extend the partnership between Riskaware and BART.

BART works closely with a diverse range of partners Environmental NGOs, Water Companies, Local Authorities, Government Agencies, Landowners, Angling Clubs, Farmer Representative Bodies, Academia and Local Businesses in order to develop new projects and leverage funds to expand their existing projects. BART’s multi-disciplinary team enables them to deliver a wide array of innovative projects that they can continue to build upon in order to create a clear future for our rivers.

Simon concludes; “BART aims to continue to grow our network of partners to deliver a range of environmental, social and economic benefits and help to protect our precious water environments for the benefit of us all and nature.”

Find out more about Bristol Avon River Trust and the exciting work they’re doing in Bristol.

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