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October 4th, 2016 in News by emily

The New Scientist recently published a report into concerns for the rivers of Europe reported by Ralf Schafer of Koblenz University who with his team had carried out a survey of data from across Europe into the state of rivers and the risks to the aquatic environment.

The map below demonstrates the state of river catchments and their apparently clean nature across much of British and European rivers, whilst the second map demonstrates that the picture is not as rosy as that which the governments’ would rather recognise. The reduced problems shown on the first map are the most easily recognised, agriculture and sewage being seen as acceptable.


(EEA 2016)

The map below gives a better view of the present situation, this is more disturbing as the nature of pollution that is of itself not immediately lethal but has the capability of accumulating, and by so doing causing damage in the long-term. This potential is where research is often an area sadly lacking in funding due to the lack of apparent urgency by which most pollutions are responded to by government. Not wishing to seem callous the responses to floods in the winters of recent years in West Yorkshire, Somerset, and Cumbria bear testament to such activity and are often the cause of poor judgment and ill-founded actions.


EEA 2016)

The Guardian published the tables below earlier this year that corroborates the findings published in the New Scientist.



The numbers of different pollutions and their significance across the UK are great, the following maps outline where many minewater pollutions do appear or may in the future: this brought about by the historic mining for both coal and metals, both ferrous and nonferrous. These pollutions, some causing severe environmental damage in some areas are hived off with many others contaminations as non-point source or diffuse pollutions and considered as in need of remediation but over a longer timeframe. These pollutions alongside others such as from agricultural activities, contaminated land and run off are now more insidious than most point sourced pollutions such as from chemical plants and sewage treatment works which have been the focus of work to cut pollution loadings of watercourses.


(Mine History Society) Coal mining locations in England, Scotland and Wales.

The diffuse nitrate pollutions, much of which is fertiliser run off or sewage treatment works failure to denitrafy final effluent, which have ravaged the waterways of the UK and Europe leading to the etrafication of many water bodies and the proliferation of algal blooms that deoxiginate the water and kill fish and their food cadres of invertabrates. The highlighted area of East Anglia mirrors the local climactic conditions of being one of the dryest parts of western Europe outside the influence of the Meditereanian region. This lack of rainfall severly limits the dilution factor and the need for greater need to cut back on all sources of nitrification of waterways.


Annual average river nitrate concentration averaged by National River Basin Districts (mg N/l), freshwater (kg N/ha of total land area), (2014), EU and EFTA
Source: European Environment Agency. Note. The Netherlands, Belgium and Germany all have similar nitrate problems or worse to those viewable in the UK but many of the receiving waters have been declassified as rivers and are officially deemed drainage channels and their data is disregarded by these plans. Other areas have few testing stations so detail is unreliable.

The following map outlines the several agro-industrial pesticides that are described as diffuse pollutions and shadow the main cereal growing and market gardening (fruit and vegetable) areas. Such states as do not monitor for such imputes to the waterways, such as the Netherlands and Spain limit the true hazard across the European Union.


Occurrence and exceedance of selected pesticides in groundwater monitoring stations, 2010-2014 Map created with data from 2010-2014. (Source EEA) several EU countries and regions do not carry out monitoring regimes for these determinants.

The map below outlines the agricultural fertiliser nitrification of watercourses through rainwater runoff and the alarming and on the whole unwarranted use of high nitrate use in areas of poorer quality agricultural land such as in south and west Wales, Cornwall and Devon also Britany in France, all of which are predominantly shallow soil pasture land where the excess of fertilizers is swiftly discharged to water courses. The high levels of nitrate in the Netherlands echoes their industrial agricultural systems and close continuity of water table to the land.

Joint Research Centre, European Commission annual diffuse agricultural emissions of nitrogen to freshwater (kg N/ha of total land area), (2010)

As already noted above the map demonstrating agriculturally derived nitrates in controlled waters but it further demonstrates, outside the major sites of pollution, a vision of farming where once sheep and cattle were part of a mixed agricultural tradition. The role of sheep and cattle today being taken by manufactured fertilisers to the detriment of both the rivers and the soil structure in the medium to long-term.

The sets of maps could go on with the locations of sewage treatment works that discharge oestrogenic materials, their mimics, micro plastics and much else that has no place in the water environment: the effects of motorway and major road rainwater runoff, urban drainage, the list is remarkably full. The point is made by those already supplied and that they represent a workload for the future inside or out of the EU.

With Britain now leaving the European Union under the process colloquially termed Brexit the future is uncertain for the future of the water environment, there is no one body of government that is for its benefit. All ministries have an impact: industry, energy, transport, agriculture, health and even the MoD and Home Office have substantial and growing influence on the environment and particularly on water. The need to save money so as to support regions once aided from the European Union, expansion of the NHS, HS2, the next nuclear reactors and the decommissioning of others, replacements for Trident, the need for more social housing and much else are to figure up the chain of importance above that of rivers and the quality of their water.

The hope for Britain’s rivers is that within government someone will spread the notion that water is important: it is finite, and what we have is not to be wasted and turned back to whence it was in the 1970s and 80s when Dennis Healy pointed out that there were no votes in shit! One hopes there is and will always be, the country is no longer to be constrained by some of the more onerous and frankly absurd elements of the Water Framework Directive and allowed to take the best parts regarding habitat and ecological benefits, the chemical and biological elements and make those work. There will be not the need to consider the engineered qualities of many rivers’ histories as some set of bad marks to be held against them.

Water is life: surface water and ground; the interplay between the two and the threat that at times in the near future we will have draught as well as floods. The knee jerk reaction need not be the first actions, the chances that abundance offers must be met by finding new ways to channel and hold onto water, not just as reservoirs of standing water but in the recreation of wetlands and the creation of new ones placed where they may be best located to serve need. Such planning will require biomass that might be harvested from land fill and bio-digested wastes which will alter the whole strategy of recycling and waste disposal. At the same time allowing wetlands to develop and flourish can demonstrate the principals of ‘Blue Carbon’: the coastal marshes and estuarine wetland sinks that hold large volumes of CO2 that otherwise could go on to choke the planet: wetlands that can also succeed in inland settings as major sites for carbon sequestration.

The prospect is not bleak for the water environment but it is challenging. The future for Britain and its water environment have many intricate twists and turns to pass through but if reason and a positive attitude can be developed to understand that the benefits of a better aquatic environment might include fiscal gain and related cost savings to aid what appears may well be a cash strapped future, but a sustainable water rich future which is economically desirable and to any government deliverable.

Harvey Wood.

October 2016.




Author: emily

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