Make a noise about the sorry State Of Our Rivers

Make a noise about the sorry State Of Our Rivers

Sewage pollution in the Hogsmill
Pollution in the Hogsmill River, by Toby Hull of the South East Rivers Trust

Brace yourselves: 0% of England’s rivers are in good overall health. A truly shocking fact for a habitat that’s so vital to all of us.

This and other alarming statistics come from the Rivers Trust’s 2024 State Of Our Rivers Report, which has been launched today (Monday 26th February).

Combining data, insightful maps, and illuminating case studies, the report dives into the data and evidence, offering us an insight into just how our rivers in the UK and Ireland are doing.

The data is clear:

  • No single stretch of river in England is in good overall health
  • Just 15% of English river stretches reach good ecological health standards
  • Toxic chemicals that remain in our ecosystems for decades pollute every stretch of English rivers

Healthy rivers can be a powerful ally in mitigating the effects of climate change, being able to protect communities from flood and drought, the report emphasises. They support a wealth of biodiversity. They also benefit our physical and mental well-being and are a fantastic way for us to reconnect with nature.

However, these vital ecosystems are plagued by sewage, chemical, nutrient and plastic pollution. They have been heavily modified, so they don’t function as naturally as they should.

All this means that our aquatic wildlife, from plants to fish, is having to work harder to survive – and that rivers can be unpleasant places to visit or to use for recreation.

So, what can you do? Here’s five actions you can take

1 Write to your MP to demand meaningful action

Demand better for your river
Demand better for your river

If you are shocked by the state of our rivers, write to your MP to demand change.

Tell them that restoring rivers is climate action, supports wildlife and protects communities.

The report allows you to search for your local stretch of river and use its stats and maps on sewage, barriers in rivers and chemicals to arm yourself with facts before contacting your MP.

You can contact your MP via the Rivers Trust’s portal – and add your own words to the template.

Ask your elected representative what they are doing about river health. We want you to demand better Government action for our rivers, through better water quality monitoring, investment in infrastructure for sewage treatment and better funding for Nature-based Solutions.

To help you when you write, we have compiled a State Of Our Rivers Catchment Crib Sheet with a basic comparison of Water Framework Directive ratings for our catchments between 2019 and 2022.

We would also encourage you to speak up for some of our recent work (below) and show how it is making a real difference to rivers.

For example:

  • Volunteers plant up berms at Morden Hall Park
    Volunteers plant up berms at Morden Hall Park in September 2023

    Nature-based solutions such as leaky woody dams are holding water longer in the landscape of the Beult area of the River Medway. This increases biodiversity and helps nature thrive, as well as slows water flow into the main river, where it is abstracted for human use. As those who went on our Nature-based Safari concluded: We need to make more of this happen on a wider scale.

  • Deflectors and planted berms extending parts of the bank have re-wiggled a straight section of the River Wandle in Morden Hall Park (pictured). This works wonders for wildlife, varying the flow of the water and giving fish and invertebrates places of refuge and areas to breed.
  • New wetlands constructed at Chamber Mead have brought fresh hope to the Hogsmill. They divert pollution which will help protect 5km of precious chalk stream.
  • Our Holistic Water for Horticulture project works with growers towards a 2030 target that 50% of the UK’s fresh food is sourced from areas with sustainable water management. The south east is an area already classed as water-stressed and this is an issue that affects our food security.
  • We’re also working to put rivers at the heart of landowner thinking as part of the Darent Landscape Recovery Project, a Government-funded pilot.

2 Shout out for your local river on social media

Join the fight for healthy rivers

What’s your local stretch of river? How do you use it and how does it affect your mood? Perhaps you visit it for pleasure with your dog on a daily walk, or use it for recreation such as rowing, canoeing or swimming.

However you care about your local river and interact with it, we want you to tell us online. Once you have found out about the condition of your local river via the State of Our Rivers report, make a noise about it!

Report what you see – for good or bad – whether that’s young fish thriving and wildlife flourishing, or plastic pollution and sewage outfall spills.

Use the hashtag #StateofOurRivers and find us on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook and Instagram.  Why not tag the elected representative you have emailed, too? You can also tag @TheRiversTrust on all channels.

3 Sign up to be an Everyday River Hero

Become an Everyday River Hero

Whether you are a seasoned, long-term river user or you’ve been caught up in the increasing wave of publicity around sewage and other river issues, we want you to become an Everyday River Hero.

It might be hard to believe given our wet winter, but the south east of England actually receives less annual rainfall than the south of France. We face a real threat of not being able to meet supply by 2050, because of a growing population and climate change.

Launched in January, our 10-week email programme will tell you why rivers are essential for our daily lives and how to care for and protect wildlife, when you are exploring the great outdoors or at home. How – and how much – water you use in your bathroom and kitchen, as well as your garden can be as vital for rivers and the wildlife that thrives in them as the flea treatments you use on your dogs.

Read more and sign up on our campaign webpage.

4 Volunteer with us to improve rivers!

Gravel seeding
Join us for gravel seeding on the Loddon in March

We always get a huge thrill when we can involve volunteers directly in work to help rivers thrive. There is nothing like enabling communities to take action for the stretch of water they love.

  • Help install gravel on the River Blackwater in Aldershot. Join us to improve this stretch of the River Loddon for fish and invertebrates on any of four days, from March 12th to 15th.
  • Sign up for Outfall Safari training on the Beverley Brook, on 20th. Join us and the Zoological Society of London to learn to spot and report misconnected plumbing that is polluting rivers. The results will help trace appliances such as washing machines that have been connected to the wrong pipes when they were installed.

To book, visit our events page – and bookmark it for subsequent volunteering opportunities during 2024.

5 Book our education sessions for your school or youth group

A school education session
A school education session

Educating our youngest citizens is a core part of our work on the Beverley Brook, Hogsmill and Wandle rivers, where we hold sessions for Key Stage 1 and 2, in schools and along rivers. Our sessions are available for youth groups, too, so inspire them to cherish their local waterway by booking a session.

We also run school sessions on the River Mole, under the Our River Our Water programme.

If you are a parent or teacher, read our education page for full details and encourage your school community to get in touch!

As one teacher said about our curriculum linked sessions: “They fit exactly with what we have been learning and the children enjoyed all the activities.”

 

 

 

 

Helping big business tackle new water laws

In mid-2023, the South East Rivers Trust began working with Thanet Earth, the UK’s largest glasshouse grower, to help the business become even more water resilient. They also need to negotiate upcoming changes in legislation. Dr Sam Hughes, our Senior Water and Land Stewardship Officer, gives an update on our year-long project with them.

The South East of England is classed as water stressed, with demand from businesses and residents set to exceed supply by 2030. Thanet Earth, an extremely successful fresh produce business, sits in one of the driest corners of the south east – the Isle of Thanet.

Thanet Earth production
Thanet Earth produces millions of peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers per year. Picture by Thanet Earth

The company is already highly innovative about sourcing water for its annual production of 400 million tomatoes, 30 million cucumbers and 24 million peppers. As well as harvesting condensation and rainwater its biggest water efficiency method is a recirculation concept: all the run-off water not absorbed by the plants is collected, filtrated and re-used again and again.

This supplements some mains supply and groundwater abstraction – and the latter is a key focus of our work with the company.

Our Water and Land Stewardship team’s first report for Thanet Earth has outlined the current and future abstraction situation in the Stour catchment.

In particular, we have referenced what the implications will be from 2028, as a result of the section 88 of the Environment Act 2021, which refers specifically to water abstraction and provides for certain modifications to be implemented where change is considered necessary.

Our next steps are to facilitate a series of meetings between Thanet Earth and key water experts. The meetings aim to build relationships with organisations such as the Environment Agency to facilitate dialogue on what the Environment Act will mean for them and how much water they can abstract.

Thanet Earth as seen from above, including its own reservoir
Thanet Earth as seen from above, including its own reservoir

We will facilitate meetings with Southern Water, Thanet Earth’s supplier, to forge a closer working relationship and explore the potential for water sharing or trading through the platform developed by Kent County Council. With businesses facing a “use it or lose it” situation in the not too distant future when the Act is implemented, if they do not abstract all the water they are entitled to under licence, sharing with neighbouring abstractors could be a way to help meet demand.

We are also planning a workshop in early 2024 on Water Abstraction Groups to encourage working collectively for greater water resilience.

Our project with Thanet Earth is part of our Holistic Water For Horticulture  [HWH] work, an initiative that supports growers across Kent with sustainable water management.

The HWH project supports food and drink businesses through the Courtauld Commitment 2030 Water Roadmap, a voluntary commitment that supermarkets, food brands and the  businesses that supply them sign up to protect critical water resources for food production, nature and local communities.

The key target of the C2030 roadmap is that 50% of the UK’s fresh food is sourced from areas with sustainable water management.

Would you like us to visit your farm or business and develop a plan on using water? Contact us by clicking on this link.

A backwater to boost the Teise

Anglers have already reported seeing small fish using a new backwater on the River Teise in Kent just days after it was created by the South East Rivers Trust.

Taking just over a week to construct in September, the backwater has created a refuge for aquatic life taking cover from high flows or pollution incidents emanating from the main river.

A natural depression had formed in the land
A natural depression had formed in the landscape

A natural depression in the landscape, which might actually have been the original course of the river, proved the perfect place to construct this new backwater, near Goudhurst.

The depression was dug out to a size of 20×8 metres by our contractors FGS Pilcher. They used two diggers and four dumpers to create the full depth of the wetland.

The deepest section was created where it would be fed by the river and then a slope was built to the far end. This will prevent fish becoming trapped and that the backwater will always hold water, even during low flow conditions.

It is always a bonus when materials can be reused. We placed root plates and large pieces of timber within the backwater to provide additional habitat. The complex root plates provide great cover for juvenile fish, while the large pieces of timber may be used by amphibians accessing or exiting the backwater, or as a perch for birds.

We also have plans for other large pieces of timber generated during the construction works. We will be returning to the site to introduce some of these big bits of wood into the river, to help increase habitat diversity within the Teise itself.

We have begun to plant the backwater's edge with ferns
We have begun to plant the backwater’s edge with ferns

We have recently planted some of the backwater edges with ferns and other flora sourced from the riverbank nearby. These have been supplemented with a natural pond/wetland seed mix to attract insects and birds when they grow next spring. These will help the backwater become a haven for dragonflies and damselflies.

The work, supported by the Environment Agency, is part of our mission in the Teise Habitat Improvement project to improve this sub-catchment of the River Medway.

In recent years we have removed four concrete weirs to allow fish to reach different habitats and added woody materials such as deflectors to improve river habitat.

We have also worked closely with the Teise Angling and Conversation Society to improve the course of a heavily modified and dredged river and improve the habitats for brown trout, rainbow trout and grayling which frequent the watercourse.

The completed backwater on the Teise
The completed backwater on the Teise

Ploughing a joint course for the Medway’s rivers

Sharing a stand with the Kent Wildlife Trust at the Weald of Kent Ploughing Match in September gave us a fantastic platform to tell the public all about rivers – and in particular our work nearby, writes Cleo Alper, our River Medway Catchment Officer.

SERT and Kent Wildlife Trust at the Ploughing Match. Picture by Anne Tipples
SERT and Kent Wildlife Trust at the Weald of Kent Ploughing Match. Picture by Anne Tipples

The popular annual ploughing match, run since 1947, was held near Tonbridge alongside the River Beult, where we have carried out a great deal of work, including nature-based solutions to improve water sources on land.

Demonstrating what's in rivers with a riverfly spot check
Demonstrating what’s in the River Beult with a Riverfly spot check

Through a Riverfly sample we sourced on the day, we demonstrated some of the life below the surface in the River Medway – of which the Beult is a tributary.

We were able to discuss with the public the importance of monitoring our waters for riverflies – mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies – which are at the heart of freshwater ecosystems and a vital link in the aquatic food chain. Visitors to our stall were delighted to learn about these species and also see we had found shrimp and pea mussel, among other creatures.

It was inspiring to talk to more than 100 people who had a wide range of interests, knowledge and experiences of the river and local wildlife.

We had encouraging conversations around observations of what is happening with our rivers and about what the community would like to see in the future.

Listing what we found in our river sample taken from the Medway
Listing what we found in our river sample taken from the Medway

The event demonstrated both how much local people are aware of the importance of their local river and the range of concerns they have. These include diminishing wildlife and nature, water quality issues, and low water flow.

Collaborating with Kent Wildlife Trust on the stall was a real pleasure. A shared stand allowed us to talk about the work we are doing in partnership to restore rivers and our landscape and to showcase the wide range of partnership work and restoration occurring in the River Beult, one of four catchments on the Medway, and beyond.

Among the work we spoke about were the benefits of natural flood management and how these manage flood risk, increase water storage and create habitat. We also spoke about the benefits of nature-based solutions and our work on the River Teise. Here we are working on restoring wetlands to create more habitat and increase resilience to low water flows, plus putting in leaky woody structures to improve the river flow and the range of habitat. We are currently working on installing a backwater to increase biodiversity and prevent flooding.

We also told the public about our PROWATER work, managing landscapes to retain water for longer, the results of which include restoring key habitats and healthy soils and grasslands.

Co-Ceo Hester Liakos with staff at the Weald of Kent Ploughing Match
Our Co-CEO Hester Liakos with staff at the Weald of Kent Ploughing Match

 

Helping the UK’s largest glasshouse food grower with water resilience

The Water and Land Stewardship Team at the South East Rivers Trust (SERT) is working directly with Thanet Earth, the largest food grower using a glasshouse in the UK, to support them on a pathway to greater water resilience.

This is part of our Holistic Water For Horticulture work, an initiative that supports growers across Kent with sustainable water management.

Thanet Earth estimates that it produces about 400 million tomatoes, 30 million cucumbers and 24 million peppers every year. To meet its water needs, the company pumps in groundwater and collects rainwater and condensation from the glasshouses (imagine a greenhouse on an industrial size). However, this is becoming increasingly unsustainable as the company grows and climate change bites.

The drought of summer 2022 was a wake-up call for many commercial food growers, who already faced unprecedented challenges in a time of environmental uncertainty and burgeoning economic constraints.

Thanet Earth from above
Thanet Earth glasshouse has its own reservoir

Extreme changes in seasonal weather patterns, water availability and rising prices for materials, fuel and other goods are just some of the factors affecting the sector as never before. At the same time, measures for food security and environmental sustainability must work hand in hand for the benefit of all.

Kent-based growers already work in an area that is classed as water-stressed, a designation that applies to all of the south east of England. In times of prolonged extreme heat and little to no rainfall such as 2022, restrictions can be applied to protect the environment and ensure that there is enough water for all.

Water is the foundation upon which horticulture businesses are built. The issue of water is particularly relevant for crops that grow under glass or plastic (protected crops), since sufficient quantities of good quality water must be used during the growing season.

Over the next year, SERT’s Water and Land Stewardship team will be investigating options to increase the water supply resilience of the Thanet Earth site. This includes measures to collect, store, abstract and share water, within the context of sustainable water management in the region.

The SERT team will help identify funding options to support the implementation of measures and facilitate contact with key stakeholders and practitioners. These include the local water company, other water abstractors and government agencies. We’ll also help navigate the changes to legislation for water abstraction resulting from the 25 Year Environment Plan and the implementation of the Environment Act 2021.

Water supply of crops at is carefully managed at Thanet Earth

Pleun van Malkenhorst, Managing Director of Rainbow UK (Thanet Earth), said: “As one of the largest local business water users, we are very aware of our responsibility to do so sustainably.  By working directly with The Water and Land Stewardship Team at the South East Rivers Trust this will help us to continually improve the way we utilise water on site.”

Dr Samantha Jane Hughes, Senior Water and Land Stewardship Officer at SERT leading on the project, said: “We are really looking forward to working with Thanet Earth over the coming year on how to improve water resilience for a business that is already highly innovative when it comes to alternative sources of water such as rainwater and even condensation harvesting.

Inside Thanet Earth Glasshouse
Thanet Earth is the largest glasshouse food producer in the UK

“The challenges for this sector are real and we will have to think out of the box and consult with different specialists in order to build a resilient pathway that supports the business, helps to ensure food security and does not impact the environment.”

The HWH project supports food and drink businesses through the Courtauld Commitment 2030 Water Roadmap, a voluntary commitment that supermarkets, food brands and the  businesses that supply them sign up to protect critical water resources for food production, nature and local communities.

The key target of the C2030 roadmap is that 50% of the UK’s fresh food is sourced from areas with sustainable water management.

The HWH project works across the sector to identify site-specific measures to improve water self-sufficiency of growers and to reduce impacts caused by excess water runoff through nature-based solutions.

Would you like us to visit your farm and develop a free plan on using water? Contact us by clicking on this link.

Sign open letter to political parties to support nature

River lovers are being urged to sign an open letter calling on all political parties to adopt a five-point plan for wildlife in their manifestos for the next General Election, likely to take place in 2024.

The Rivers Trust movement has joined an 80-strong coalition of partners to support the Nature 2030 Campaign. It is led by the Wildlife and Countryside Link and supported by celebrities including television personalities Steve Backshall and Chris Packham.

Research shows that the UK has become one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, with more than one in seven native wildlife species facing extinction.

The campaign outlines that in 2022 sewage was discharged for more than 2.4 million hours across England, Scotland and Wales, accounting for more than 389,000 sewage spills. Commitments were set in 2021 to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, but there’s a long way to go to meet these targets. With only seven years to go, just 3% of land and 4% of sea have this protection. We need stronger environmental leadership and the Nature 2030 campaign demands it.

Wetland restoration scene
A wetland restoration scene from our nature based solutions safari © South East Rivers Trust

Thousands of people have already signed the letter, which was launched at Westminster in July.

As one of the largest regional rivers trusts, the South East Rivers Trust (SERT) is urging supporters to back the campaign, which has five key asks for political parties:

  • Double the wildlife-friendly farming budget to £6bn for ambitious farm improvements and large-scale nature restoration
  • Make polluters pay for nature restoration by requiring big businesses to deliver environmental improvement plans and funding to counter damage
  • Create green jobs on a large scale, including setting up a National Nature Service delivering wide-scale habitat restoration
  • Increase protection and funding for wildlife sites by creating a Public Nature Estate to fulfil the promise to protect 30% of the land and sea for nature by 2030
  • Set up a new law guaranteeing a right to a healthy environment, establishing a human right to clean air and water plus access to nature, plus building nature into decision making

Hester Liakos, co-CEO of SERT, said: “Rivers are at the heart of the battle to restore nature. Our work with local communities, farmers and landowners demonstrates the positive difference that nature based solutions and natural flood management can make in improving the health and biodiversity of rivers. But to make this difference on the scale that nature truly needs requires more funding and greater commitment and leadership from Government – so we’re asking our supporters to sign this open letter to demand action from all political leaders.”

Our work backed by either EU or the UK Government includes PROWATER and Environmental Land Management Schemes.

Tessa Wardley, Director of Communications and Advocacy at the Rivers Trust, said: “The public are rightfully outraged by the state of our rivers and we need political parties to make firm commitments towards their recovery, which are then backed up by action. Delivering the Nature 2030 policies would significantly improve the health of our rivers, which are absolutely core to tackling the biodiversity, climate and wellbeing crises we face as a nation and planet.”

Click here to sign the Nature 2030 letter today

 

Nature-based solutions safari inspires others to scale up

One day in spring, in the middle of the woods of deepest darkest Kent, the South East Rivers Trust led a ‘safari’  to discover  the value of nature-based solutions in increasing the resilience of our catchments and communities.

During the past few years, the South East Rivers Trust (SERT) has been developing  a series of nature-based solutions for water with landowners in  the Upper Beult Farm Cluster in Kent. Nature-based solutions for water (NbS for water) are features that hold back water in the landscape, slowing it down and filtering it so that water resources are replenished and flooding and pollution is reduced. These NbS include leaky woody dams, offline ponds and pasture management.

Explorers from a range of organisations navigated woods, wetlands and farmland to spot and learn about these NbS, covering four farms of the Upper Beult farm cluster.

Wetland restoration scene
A wetland restoration scene on the nature-based solutions safari © South East Rivers Trust

So what was the purpose of this ‘NbS Safari’?

Firstly, it was to demonstrate how these solutions can underpin water resources provision, as well as achieve nature recovery and other social and environmental benefits.

Secondly, we wanted our guests to imagine what benefits could be achieved if these NbS could be “scaled up”, such as across the whole of the River Medway catchment, of which the Beult is just one part.

Finally, we were keen to spark thought and discussion among our guests about potential partnerships and support that could facilitate this ambition.

The 30-strong party of intrepid NbS explorers were led by Kathi Bauer, SERT’s Senior Natural Capital Officer – and the list of organisations represented was a long one. It included staff from Southern Water, which has supported the development of the NbS with the Upper Beult farming cluster.

Others interested to find out more came from SES Water, the Upper Medway Internal Drainage Board, Water Resources South East, Kent County Council, Kent Wildlife Trust, Waitrose, Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF), the Marden farming cluster, the Forestry Commission and Swale Borough Council.

The safari showcased work that we had initiated through our Interreg2Seas PROWATER project, and further work we have continued with Southern Water’s support. These efforts were the culmination of several years’ work. As we outlined earlier this year, the PROWATER project alone has helped retain more than 60 million litres of water (enough to fill 24 Olympic sized swimming pools) annually.

Kathi explained how we had worked closely with farmers and landowners. She outlined how we had used our expertise to identify, develop and implement appropriate NbS to regulate the flow of water at appropriate locations in the upper catchment of the Beult.

What types of nature-based solutions were explored?

Leaky Woody Dams (right)
Leaky Woody Dams, like the one pictured on the right, slow the flow of water, holding it in the landscape © South East Rivers Trust

Leaky woody dams were a key solution spotted on the safari: by placing branches and logs across channels and land where water is known to flow, water is held back and “spills” from the channels to create a small wetland.  The result is that instead of heavy rainfall running straight off the land, its movement is more gradual. This means its contribution to the flow of the River Beult (an important source for water supply) is spread across many more months of the year.

Holding water in the landscape in this way also means creating richer and more diverse habitat, attracting vegetation, invertebrates and birds that feed on them.

Offline ponds – separated from the river network – were also part of the safari. Offline ponds can be created in natural depressions in the land where water is directed using leaky woody dams. By retaining water, they supplement the Beult’s summer flows and also boost plant and invertebrate  biodiversity.

Pasture Management – the benefits of mob grazing were also outlined as part of the safari. If cattle feed on small sections of their grazing land one piece at a time,  grass and other vegetation is able to recover and establish.  Water soaks into the soil better, with benefits including slowing the run-off of rainwater and pasture that is more resilient to drought.

Nature-based Solution visitors standing in one of the areas used for mob grazing
Nature-based Solution visitors standing in one of the areas used for mob grazing © South East Rivers Trust

Together, these nature-based solutions are managing the landscape for water and helping to address water scarcity in the south east, while also providing a range of additional benefits including natural habitat improvements. These solutions are therefore key to reversing the declining trend in biodiversity. According to the Natural History Museum, the world has already gone through the “safe limit for humanity” of biodiversity loss. The UK, its analysis says, has an average of only 53% of its biodiversity left and is in the bottom 10% of countries globally – and last among the G7 countries.

Multiple nature-based solutions all add up, which is central to the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA) principal of managing landscapes as a whole, rather than as separate sections of river or land in isolation.

This is central to our thinking at SERT and something with which those on this NbS Safari agreed: we need to make more of this happen.

For more information and to get in touch about developing nature-based solutions in the landscape, contact Cat Moncrieff, our Head of Water and Land Stewardship. Contact us at info@southeastriverstrust.org or by telephone, on 0845 092 0110.

Going down the drain in the name of plastic research

As part of our Preventing Plastic Pollution (PPP) project, the South East Rivers Trust carried out a trial by putting guards under drains in public streets, to collect and assess the types of litter that are ending up in rivers.  Hannah Dry, our Plastics Project Officer, reports.

Trialing new ways to prevent plastic pollution

Drain guards trial
Opening a drain guard to see what litter has been captured

Our work over the past three years for the Preventing Plastic Pollution project has involved many cleanups and litter categorising events, education sessions and workshops and setting up a River Guardians scheme.

These were to make the public aware of the problems caused by plastic in rivers and oceans and to help communities think about how they might reduce their reliance on single-use items, which accounts for 50% of the of the plastic that reaches oceans via rivers.

Another principal aim of PPP, however, was to investigate and trial innovative ways to prevent plastic reaching rivers in the first place.

One way in which we did this on the River Medway,  our section of the 18-partner PPP project, was to trial the use of drain guards on public streets. What goes down these public drains goes straight into the river. The idea was to capture litter, to see what types were common and to examine the scheme’s potential – if scaled up – to preventing litter reaching rivers.

We worked in partnership with Kent County Council to put in six drain guards around Maidstone town centre, installing them for a nine-month trial.

The problem with drains

Potential for scaling up drain guards
Monitoring took place regularly during the nine-month trial

Drainage pipe networks are complex. Ownership is fragmented between different organisations such as local authorities, water companies, internal drainage boards, highways authorities, businesses and private individuals. These bodies only maintain the drain, but the responsibility of preventing pollution sits with no one.

What we do know is that rainwater drainage systems are a source of pollution directly into rivers – and a lot of this pollution is plastic. Once in the river, it is difficult to remove, resulting in immense damage to the environment, organisms and affecting water quality – and finally ending in marine ecosystems.

Last June, we installed drain guards to capture the debris, not just to prevent it reaching the river network but giving us the chance to see what types of litter were common.

The guards – which were nicknamed witches’ hats because of their triangular shape – are made from a geotextile material and designed to sit beneath a drain grill to act as a filter, catching plastic litter and debris that are washed in through runoff.

Monitoring these drain guards every few months, we found that we had to fit new models in three of the drains after four months because of issues with cigarette burn holes. Emptying and categorisation of the litter occurred at every monitoring session throughout the trial. The purpose of the trial was to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of the drain guards in preventing litter getting into the drainage network and to assess their potential to provide a long-term solution for stopping plastic pollution from point source discharge outlets into the Medway.

What we found

Litter in a drain guard
Cigarette butts were the most common find when emptying drain guards during our trial

There is no doubt that plastic litter falls into our drainage networks from roads and pedestrian walkways. Plastic was found in every drain guard during every monitoring session. Over the course of the trial, the guards caught and removed more than 774 items.

The locations to trial the drain guards were chosen based on the footfall and on their proximity to amenities such as bar and pubs. That was exactly where we found the highest volume of litter, the biggest number of cigarette butts and bits of rubbish that can be directly linked to the consumer – such as lemon slices, plastic straws, and beer bottle lids.

This gave us the chance to assess the influence of amenities with the volume of litter in the drain as well as giving an opportunity to engage with passers by on site and to use the information later on to engage directly with pub/bar goers and owners.

The most frequent litter type, by far, was cigarette butts (423). Their filters are made from a chemical compound – usually cellulose acetate, a type of synthetic fibre. It takes years to break down.

The next most common item that we found were unidentifiable plastic items (172). These were too small to be categorised or too degraded, having been out in the environment too long. The strangest things we found were half a toothbrush handle and metal magnetic balls.

We also found 74 pieces of used chewing gum. It is common for chewing gum to contain plastic polymers such as polyvinyl acetate, which gives chewing gum its elasticity. Again, this means it will take a very long time to break down.

The items we found in the guards varied drastically between locations. Bottle tops, cigarette butts, straws and were all found in the guards outside pubs, whereas the guards placed on the high street next to shops typically collected items such as receipts and sweet wrappers.

Is there potential for scaling up?

Hannah before opening a drain guard
Hannah before opening a drain guard

The theory behind installing drain guards is sound – stopping pollutants before they become an issue for river ecosystems. However, the wider use of drain guards still, arguably, addresses the symptom rather than the cause of plastic pollution.

Consistent categorisation of litter during every emptying of drain guards is unrealistic, as it is time consuming and requires multiple people. Therefore, it is likely they would only be used to prevent plastic debris from entering river catchments. Yet this is still a very valuable function and something that we as a society must consider if we are to have any effect on the amount of plastic entering our rivers.

The complex nature of drain ownership and tailoring the size and shape to different sized drains, to ensure litter is collected more reliably, are also challenges that would need to be overcome.

And then there was the glamour factor…

This trial was not a glamorous one. A lot of the time was spent inspecting drains and counting very degraded and contaminated piece of litter that many people would find very disgusting. Not to mention the smell of the drains! Imagine sewers.

Yet it is necessary. Only by counting and categorising what we find down these drains can we then begin to understand the type and scale of the items and begin to think of ways to prevent it getting there in the first place.

There is too much plastic flowing into our rivers. Once it finds its way into a river, it is very difficult to remove. We need all stakeholders to take responsibility for the drainage networks and monitor and stop what is falling into them.

This trial provided data about what is entering the drainage network and how this differs between locations. It has tested different technologies to address this issue and highlighted areas where it could be feasible long term.

The answer to drought lies in working together to build back wetter

On World Water Day, Dr Sam Hughes highlights our Holistic Water for Horticulture project, working with growers to make the most of every drop of water in the face of a changing climate which is likely to bring more droughts.

Last summer’s brutal drought was a stark indication that we are entering a “new normal” of hotter summers, milder wet winters and more frequent extreme weather events, from dry spells to intense rainfall.

Vineyard
Vineyards are among large-scale crop growing that requires huge amounts of water

Climate change is real. Temperatures reached 40C for the first time in England last year. The south and east of England had the driest July on record. Rivers ran low. Wildlife, people and businesses all suffered.

The message for tackling the climate crisis from the Rivers Trust at the time was clear. We need: a faster, more coordinated government response to extreme weather impacts; investment in water infrastructure to reduce leakage; clear support and guidance on measures to reduce household consumption; and the need to build back wetter.

The National Drought Group’s leader Sir James Bevan, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, acknowledged the need for change on a massive scale:

For the coming year and… for the coming decade, a complete gear change is needed for how water companies and all water users, from farmers to households, think about how they use water and understand its fundamental value.”

A wet winter, comprising five consecutive months of above average rainfall, might have lulled some into a sense of security in the short term. However, the driest February for 30 years has been a rude awakening to 2023, bringing the possibility of another period of drought for a horticulture sector in crisis, in a region of the country already classed as water stressed.

Working for water resilience, food security and environment

Water is the foundation of the horticulture sector and this is keenly felt in the drier, more crowded catchments of the South East, where lots of water is needed for a long time by a lot of farms.

Precision irrigation for crops is required to ensure the best use of precious water resources

High value protected edible crops (soft fruit, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers to name a few) require precision irrigation over a long growing season. Out in the open, newly planted fruit orchards should be irrigated to allow young trees to establish, thrive and produce crops to support and expand business.

During the 2022 drought, a lot of growers scaled back crop areas, which ultimately affects consumers through limited availability. Many supplemented irrigation with mains water, an expensive commodity that further eroded shrinking profit margins already squeezed by inflation, labour shortages, higher labour costs and inflexible supply contracts.

Is it any surprise that these circumstances have resulted in contraction across all UK food production sectors?

Innocuous terms like “scale back” and “contraction” belie the extreme hardship being felt by businesses across the sector, especially smaller ones. The vulnerability of domestic food security has been laid bare, set against a landscape of highly altered sourcing catchments unable to cope with climate change impacts. Without acting collectively in order to drive change to lessen such impacts, businesses, supply chains, communities and the natural environment will ultimately fail.

The Courtauld 2030 Water Roadmap was launched by WRAP, the Rivers Trust and the World Wildlife Fund to meet “the challenges we face in protecting critical water resources for food supply, for nature, and for local communities” in key sourcing catchments across the UK and abroad.

The Roadmap target is for 50% of the UK’s fresh food to be sourced from areas with sustainable water management by 2030.

The South East Rivers Trust (SERT) is keenly aware of the pressures the region’s horticulture sector faces to balance water resilience, food security and environmental needs while staying in business, through our work with the Holistic Water for Horticulture project (HWH), a Courtauld 2030 Water Roadmap project. This promotes a collective approach to water and land stewardship.

The answer to being able to respond to the impact of dry spells lies in how we capture, retain and use water from our wet periods.

The pathway to water resilience is clear:

  • we need to build back better and wetter
  • it is better to work together and proactively to reap bigger water resilience benefits

Helping landowners avoid drought

HWH uses remote data to map and identify areas of present and future water risk in the South East.  This high level approach is vital for targeting engagement in high risk areas, to raise awareness of the challenges that growers and neighbouring landowners might face if droughts became a “business as usual” scenario.

HWH staff make site visits to discuss water challenges and potential site-tailored solutions that can, in some cases, bring multiple benefits.

Winter and high flows from rivers and rainfall from rooftops and polytunnels should be captured and stored for irrigation. Currently, rainwater from buildings and polytunnels can be harvested without a water abstraction licence, reducing dependence on expensive mains and diversifying water resources that support business resilience and growth.

Still a relatively new concept, water trading and sharing between water abstractors across a given area will result in a more dynamic water management landscape.

Nature-based solutions such as wetlands, scrapes, planting native flowers, shrubs and trees in areas that are prone to flooding can provide alternative sources of income (carbon credits, biodiversity net gain, stewardship schemes) to growers alongside cropping areas.

Wetlands and scrapes
Wetlands and scrapes provide advantages to land owners

These measures benefit both nature and neighbours by slowing the flow from extreme rainfall events, mitigating flood and reducing soil erosion and damage to property.

Elsewhere across SERT’s work, we work to retain water in the landscape through projects such as PROWATER, one of 10 pilots supported by the Interreg 2 Seas European Regional Development Fund.

Working together instead of in isolation to address the many challenges that face the sector packs more of a punch. Farm clusters, producer organisations, cooperatives and abstractor groups can be powerful lobbies that share information and drive change across the sector.

These are the motors of change – for water resource management and large-scale delivery of measures, such as Landscape Recovery projects through Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS), that benefit growers.

By joining forces with environmental experts at SERT through projects like HWH and PROWATER, these powerful groups can identify, develop and deliver solutions and make connections with different water users and stakeholders across the catchment prepared to invest in measures and innovation that benefit them too.

  • Are you a farmer or grower who would like advice on water resilience and management issues? Fill in our request form to book a visit from our experts.

Keeping water in the landscape through PROWATER

As our PROWATER project comes to an end, Kathi Bauer, our Senior Natural Capital Officer, reports on the importance of working together using nature-based solutions to retain water in the landscape, protecting rivers and communities from the effects of climate change.

The results of our work, carried out over the past four years, will help retain 24 Olympic sized swimming pools worth of water in the catchment each year – and that’s just on a small section of the landscape.

Water scarcity is an issue we need to address now

Back in 2018, when PROWATER first started, a summer drought was putting pressure on water resources and nature. Then, we thought this was a timely reminder of how vulnerable our freshwater systems are to climate change and the need to address this challenge for people and wildlife.

Little did we know that, four years later, we would experience the driest July in England since 1935, with temperatures reaching 40°C for the first time. Almost the entire country had hosepipe bans imposed. Many rivers recorded the lowest flows ever seen – and it was even reported that the source of the Thames dried up.

River flows droughts Beult
River flows on the Beult at Stilebridge, at the bottom of the catchment, for five historic droughts and the year 2022. Some of the lowest flows ever were in 2022 (black line).

PROWATER – Protecting and Restoring Raw Water Sources Through Actions at the Landscape Scale – set out to demonstrate how nature-based solutions (NbS) can replenish water resources at a catchment scale. These NbS included wetland restoration and changes to rural land management.

In the four years since the project started, the South East Rivers Trust has worked with:

  • three water companies
  • 24 farmers

It has delivered:

  • 2 headwater wetland restoration sites
  • 16 hectares of improved soil management
  • supported 8.4 ha of chalk grassland and heathland restoration

Together, these measures will help retain more than 60 million litres of water (enough to fill 24 Olympic sized swimming pools) in the catchments every year through slower release to the river and improved recharge to the groundwater aquifers.

The 2022 drought proved a valuable stress test for these measures, but also brought home the crucial importance of scaling up our efforts to restore catchments in order to protect rivers, wildlife, and our own need for water.

Streetend Wood
The restored headwater wetland at Streetend Wood, Moat Farm pictured in November 2022

Finding the right solutions for our catchments

As with any restoration effort, a key question was how this work could be funded. Public funding – mainly through agri-environment schemes – was set to change after Brexit, while private markets were only just starting to investigate how natural capital should sit alongside their regular balance sheets.

We worked in partnership with others to develop an evidenced base and demonstration site in the following areas

  • Friston Forest, part of the Eastbourne Chalk aquifer in the Cuckmere catchment and a focus area for project partner South East Water where chalk grassland and chalk heathland were restored
  • The Little Stour, where we supported Kent County Council and the Kentish Stour Countryside Partnership to improve soil health of farms. By doing this, we enhanced water replenishment of the chalk aquifer that feeds this chalk stream. This work included using cover and companion crops and an innovative rotational grazing trial on a stud farm.

We in particular focused on the River Beult, a tributary of the Medway, which feeds an important abstraction point supplying Bewl Water. This in turn provides water to large areas of Kent. The River Beult is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) – the only riverine SSSI in Kent – but is heavily degraded because of historic modifications, including drainage and dredging. Less than 5% of its area remains as wetland habitat – an important natural feature that would have been historically much more common.

Prowater Beult infographic
The resilience of water supply in the Beult catchment and beyond is affected by a number of factors, including the presence and condition of habitats like wetlands across the catchment.

Working together to demonstrate how nature-based solutions can be delivered

Using mapping methods developed in PROWATER, we were able to target locations of potential headwater wetland areas, which, once restored, would help the river hold on to water for longer over the course of a year. Kent Wildlife Trust’s Upper Beult Farm Cluster officer helped us contact relevant landowners, leading us to visit Moat Farm, in the headwaters of the catchment, and Pullen Barn Farm, at the start of the High Halden tributary to the Upper Beult. On Pullen Barn Farm, we worked with owner Hugh Richards to trial introducing more species-rich pastures in his livestock system, as reported on a previous blog.

Moat Farm proved to be the perfect demonstration site for a new approach to restoration, focusing on process-based interventions with natural materials from the site. Landowners Mike and Jan Bax were crucial enablers, sharing our vision for the site: to demonstrate how wetland and stream restoration could look in the Upper Beult and make it a viable option for farmers and landowners.

The multi-year nature of the project allowed us to understand the opportunities on the site and build a strong relationship with Mike and Jan, and also the wider farmer cluster, facilitated by the welcoming partnership approach Kent Wildlife Trust took.

Watch our video of work at Moat Farm 

At Streetend Wood, one of two wetland restoration sites on Moat Farm, work started in February 2021. We took down some trees, before bird nesting season, to use as material for delivery of the main works in July. In November 2021, the site started wetting up before entering a long, dry period. However, throughout the drought, vegetation stayed lush and some standing water was present until September 2022, providing refuge for wildlife.

Streetend Wood montage
The timeline showing work at Streetend Wood, Moat Farm

From demonstration site to catchment-scale restoration

While we are really proud of what we have delivered here, we know it is nowhere near enough. Our catchment-focused natural capital mapping, building on the WaterSystem Maps developed by the University of Antwerp, has helped us identify 5,000 ha of potential wetland habitats in headwaters and along the stream network in the Beult alone. If we really want to make a difference to our rivers, then we urgently need to grab hold of these opportunities.

Map of nature protecting the Beult
A map showing the contribution that natural habitats across the catchment make to protecting water quality in the Beult. Ⓒ South East Rivers Trust

So, how do we make this happen?

The answer, really, is simple: money. Most landowners will not be willing to engage with environmental schemes that have a detrimental impact on their business. While there are a number of positive, valuable options available under existing and new stewardship schemes that support farming with nature, we must go further than cover crops and two metre buffer strips.

We want to deliver on the vision of the Beult that we built over the course of the last few years and create a wetter, wilder and more diverse landscape where the river has space to thrive. We are also helping communities by slowing release of water into the river, from which water supply for the area is abstracted.

Beult catchment
A vision of the Upper Beult catchment as we’d like to see it – a meandering river with functioning floodplains full of a mosaic of wet grassland and wetland habitats, wet woodlands in headwater catchments, thriving farms with hedgerows, ponds and healthy soils protected by vegetation all year round.

This comes with uncertainty, long-term land use change and unknown costs and activities that need to be built into schemes. We know that public funding can’t deliver on ambitions like this fully. The Green Finance Institute’s Finance Gap for Nature Report estimated that in order to deliver on the targets set by government, for example, we have a gap of £8bn funding committed to reach clean water-related targets alone.

Pilots show value for further funding

Our PROWATER Test & Trial, a sub-project of PROWATER delivered as part of Defra’s work to investigate how future government funded agri-environment schemes can support landscape-scale nature recovery, looked at how we could set payment rates that worked for farmers, and combine private funding (such as from water companies) with public money.

One barrier is the way that water company funding is regulated and its five-year cycle, among other issues. On a regional scale, for example, very few nature-based and catchment options have made it into the regional water resource plan. This is partly because of how difficult it is to model and quantify the cost-benefits of NbS on water supply.

Key to unlocking this will be piloting schemes at a larger scale and developing a shared ambition and understanding of drivers and barriers within the water industry. Then, using these schemes to develop new approaches to assessing, valuing, and integrating nature-based and catchment options into water company business plans.

Prowater workshop
Workshops helped bring together different water companies, regulators, conservation organisations and landowners.

In the Beult, we are now building on our work in PROWATER through a Natural Environment Investment Readiness Fund as well as a partnership with Southern Water and the Upper Beult Farmer Cluster, funded through Southern Water’s Environmental Improvement Fund.

The future: Co-designing landscape-scale schemes

Building on the work at Moat Farm, we are working with nearby landowners to co-develop a plan to restore and protect 18ha of riparian and headwater wetlands along 2.5km of the Upper Beult.

Further afield, across other catchments in the south east, we are using the mapping developed as part of PROWATER to understand the natural assets in the catchment, how they contribute to resilient water supply, and where opportunities are for restoration. Developing this with water company partners (Southern Water and Affinity Water), we are building a shared evidence base of these habitat features and why they are important to protect. This will help us – and them – make decisions about how and where to invest funding and to understand the scale of investment needed and impact possible.

A crucial component is developing payment schemes for landowners that reflect the benefit they are providing to the water company and enable us to deliver value for money to both. There are a lot of challenges, but the most exciting and promising part of this project is that everyone involved sees the opportunity it offers and treats it as a way of learning how we can make this work – together.

PROWATER was funded through the European Regional Development Fund, with additional support from Southern Water, South East Water, Kent County Council, Defra and the Patsy Wood Trust.

Have your say on your local water company’s five-year plan

Every five years, water companies in England are required to produce a Water Resources Management Plan (WRMP), which outlines how they intend to meet the expected water demands not just in the next five years but over the next 50 in their respective service areas.

These plans take into account increasing population, climate change and growing risks of drought – while also protecting and enhancing the local environment.

An important part of the WRMP plans is customer feedback on topics which concern them most. They are currently in draft form and out for public consultation.

Sign up for our Plastic-Free Community Action Plan

The South East Rivers Trust has launched a new scheme to encourage groups to protect rivers from plastic, by cutting their reliance on single-use items. It is called the Community Action Plan and is part of our Preventing Plastic Pollution project. Below, Hannah Dry, our Plastics Project Officer, outlines the concept and how you can get involved.

Help us identify all South East chalk streams

The South East Rivers Trust has launched a Chalk Streams Review, to ensure that all rivers and streams which qualify across our catchments are identified and mapped. Dr Chris Gardner, our Head of Science and Partnerships, sets out the plan and how the public can help.

Sign up to be a River Guardian on River Medway

Residents living close to the Medway and its tributaries are being called on to take action against plastic pollution by joining a new River Guardians Team with the South East Rivers Trust (SERT). 

The waterways charity, which is providing free River Guardian kits, is asking people to adopt their local stretch of river and carry out regular litter picks alongside the banks to keep the water plastic free.

Equipment includes a litter picker, hoop, gloves and first bag, as well as information on how to report other issues affecting the river such as pollution.

Rethinking single-use habits during Plastic Free July 

Preventing Plastic Pollution

The South East Rivers Trust has been tackling pollution in rivers ever since it was formed – as the Wandle Trust – 20 years ago. 

Becoming involved with the Preventing Plastic Pollution project, on the River Medway, seemed a natural step. Plastic pollution affects all rivers, however. Therefore we want to develop our work beyond one area by engaging with a wider public as well as including the issue in our catchment action plans.

A year’s worth of cleanups give us the perfect evidence to shape behaviour change across our whole area – and the annual Plastic Free July campaign presents an appropriate moment to raise awareness of the issues and strive to change our habits. Set up in 2011, the annual campaign aims to help people reduce their reliance on single-use plastic and live by more sustainable methods.  Below, we’ve come up with several suggestions for you to try in July – and hopefully continue with well after one month.   

Connecting the dots: Understanding what landscape recovery schemes could look like

Bringing landowners together through a series of workshops and site visits has opened inspiring conversations about what the future of nature-based solutions at catchment scale could look like.

Kathi Bauer, our Natural Capital Co-ordinator, writes an update on the South East Rivers Trust’s work on a national trial, funded by DEFRA, for the new agricultural subsidies programme – Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS).

Action on sewage in rivers

Raw sewage is entering UK rivers on a horrifyingly regular basis, damaging our river ecosystems and putting public health at risk. In 2019 alone, untreated sewage poured into England’s rivers for an astounding 1.5 million hours, over the course of 200,000 separate incidents.

What’s really shocking is that, much of the time, this practice is completely legal.

Across the UK is a network of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). These are essentially Victorian-era relief valves on the sewage treatment infrastructure. If sewage piping, or even a sewage treatment works, is becoming overwhelmed with sewage and rainwater, it is diverted and discharged into a nearby watercourse instead of backing up into homes.

Water, water everywhere…or is it?

By 2050, the South East of England will need to find at least an additional one billion litres of water per day to meet demand in the region. That is about a fifth of the water used in the region today, and equivalent to the water use of seven million people per day.  Demand for water will exceed supply by 2030.

This is because of a combination of different factors. Some of it is because of the expected growth in population (even if personal water consumption is reduced). Some because water companies are trying to ensure that they have enough water available to continue supply even during more significant drought periods.

Finally, climate change will affect when water is available, and how much. Unsustainable abstractions need to be reduced in order to avoid our rivers and wetlands being damaged beyond repair.

How to solve a problem like soil moisture monitoring – featuring Friston Forest

We have finally been able to install some of our baseline monitoring equipment, which we are using at one of our pilot sites for the PROWATER project!

PROWATER is a partnership project that the South East Rivers Trust is delivering locally with Kent County Council and South East Water. The project will investigate the opportunities for ecosystem-based adaptation to water scarcity and climate change.

As water is a scarce resource in South East England, we are interested in understanding the impact of different habitats and land management options on the availability of water. A lot of our public water supply in the South East comes from groundwater stored in underground reservoirs, also known as aquifers. These aquifers are normally recharged by winter rainfall. The quantity and quality of water recharged is highly influenced by how the land on top of the groundwater body is managed. PROWATER aims to understand how to quantify the benefits from those different management options, and how to reward those managing the landscape, like farmers and foresters, for making choices that protect those water resources.