What you need to know about River Health

Our MarineAware platform has many use cases.

One of our latest applications is the WaterBlitz Explorer tool. This data visualisation tool was built for Bristol Avon Rivers Trust and harnesses MarineAware capabilities to intuitively map and display the river data collected in their annual volunteer events. These events see citizen scientists collecting samples from their local rivers so BART can monitor, measure and analyse nutrient pollution and other factors of river quality.

This is important work which helps to mitigate the prevalent risks towards the UK’s rivers, a problem which is being similarly felt in many global countries.

River water quality plays a significant role in the preservation of our ecosystems and human wellbeing. Just as oil spills can impact marine wildlife, vegetation and habitats, so too does pollution impact the river environment.

Although there has been significant improvement in the standard of rivers across the UK and Europe over the past few decades, we still haven’t reached ‘acceptable’ levels of river quality. There is still much more that can be done to both protect and revitalise our rivers.

One local example of such work is being conducted by Bristol Avon River Trust (BART), in association with FreshWater Watch. Their WaterBlitz events held in 2021 brought together 193 volunteer Citizen Scientists and achieved 239 samples of rivers in the Bristol Avon catchment area. The results of this work have been displayed through the WaterBlitz data visualisation software, developed by Riskaware, and will help the organisation target areas for further investigation, conservation and enhancement activities to improve river status.

Read our case study for more information on this project

The state of UK rivers

A minute number of rivers in the UK are considered to be in good health. Although the UK government have set an ambitious target to improve this figure, current statistics show that achieving this may be unlikely.

“100% of rivers to be classed ‘good’ by 2027”

 – WLC

A brief history

That being said, our rivers are in much better condition than they were several decades ago. The onset of the industrial revolution and agricultural expansion in the UK was highly damaging to biodiversity. As a result of not having the same regulations as today, this era nearly destroyed our rivers.

Regulation change

The 1974 Control of Pollution Act and subsequent European legislation put effective restrictions in place, allowing our rivers to rejuvenate and recover.

What’s the criteria for good river quality?

The Water Framework Directive for England and Wales outlines the classification for river water quality standards. This ranges from High quality to Poor quality, with only the rivers in the ‘High’ or ‘Good’ categories being seen to meet a sustainable standard.

This includes multiple factors that together indicate the over status of a water body, including rivers, freshwater lakes, and coastlines.

Classification factors for River Standards:

  • Phosphorus levels
  • Acidity
  • Specific pollutant levels
  • Oxygen levels
  • Ammonia levels
  • Groundwater quality
  • River flow

Key risks facing rivers and coastlines

River quality is detrimentally affected by many factors, from agricultural run-off to changing weather conditions, and increasing populations.

There has been a steady rise in the number of water pollution incidents in recent years, from fewer than 6,500 in 2015 to almost 7,600 in 2019.

UK Gov

Chemical pollution:

Nitrates and phosphates occur naturally in rivers, but other pollutant activity can exacerbate these levels and cause serious issues for river quality.

The European Environment Agency states that while levels have declined over the past decade, this trend has begun to slow. – EEA

The impacts

Nitrates and phosphates can cause plants and algae to grow rapidly, using up oxygen which ultimately kills wildlife.

Aglae blooms can also impact people’s health if they are swimming in polluted waters.

The data from July’s catchment-wide WaterBlitz, shows:

  • The average nitrate concentration was 3.23 mg/L
  • The average concentration of phosphates was 0.128 mg/L
  • 84% of samples recorded a medium or high level of nitrate
  • 55% of samples were either medium or high level of phosphates

Combined sewage overflow (CSO):

In extreme weather conditions, CSOs can overflow and pump raw sewage into rivers.

In 2019 storm overflows spilled an average of 35 times each and nearly one in ten spilled more than 100 times

UK Gov

The impacts

CSOs are a key source of pollution which impacts river quality and can additionally introduce bacterial contamination, debris, and human health risks.

The Rivers Trust provide a useful map indicating what areas of river are affected by raw sewage.

Erosion:

Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years, with erosion being a primary culprit.

WWF

The impacts

Not only does land erosion represent a loss of healthy land for farming and natural habitats, but it causes more sediment and pollution to enter rivers which can damage wildlife populations.

Water usage:

Much of the water we use every day is extracted from rivers. Excessive use of water can cause water levels in rivers to drop dramatically low, which is exacerbated by increased incidents of drought.

The impacts

This reduction causes a higher concentration of pollutants, impacting wildlife and plant life in river areas.

Measures to improve rivers

Targeted intervention is key.

Gathering data about river quality, such as chemical levels, allows people to identify areas that present particular poor conditions and therefore prioritise these areas for more regular study and positive action.

Building awareness helps the cause.

Getting the public to understand the severity of the problem and what it means for the state of our environments and our populations can help drive more active conservation work and funding.

Embracing a catchment approach

Healthy rivers are important to every element of society. A catchment-based approach to river conservation, protection and rejuvenation gets everybody – from public volunteers to local businesses – involved in activities to improve our rivers.

Bristol Avon Rivers Trust (BART) is an example of an organisation working to rejuvenate a river catchment area through education, local land management initiatives, public engagement and more.

MarineAware for Rivers

MarineAware, our marine incident modelling platform, capabilities have been used to build a visualisation platform for river data.

The WaterBlitz Explorer tool harnesses MarineAware technologies to display sample data collected by Bristol River Avon Trust’s (BART) citizen scientists onto a map of the Bristol Avon river catchment.

As a cornerstone of global ecosystems, with integral ties to human health, livelihoods, and environmental sustainability, protecting our rivers is an essential responsibility for the public, government and businesses alike.

This solution empowers BART to target their interventions, mitigate risks towards rivers, and create more robust strategies for conservation, rejuvenation, and incident response activities, for the benefit of biodiversity and populations.

Let’s combat declining river health

Get in touch to learn more about our WaterBlitz solution and how it can be used to solve river-based challenges.

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