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Sarah Hughes

River Emergency

We are all aware of the climate emergency and crashing biodiversity. Our rivers are facing an existential crisis too, blighted by how we live today.

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Rother near Petworth

‘The most erodible catchment in the UK’

The Rother has the dubious accolade of being the most erodible catchment in the UK. Here the sandy soils are easily washed into the river during rainfall. Soil in the river is known as sediment. It affects water quality and smothers gravels and plants.  Fish can’t lay their eggs in gravels which are smothered by sediment.

To quote and American Geomorphologist: 

‘The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land.’
- Luna Leopold

Never was this truer than in relation to sediment in the Rother. 

240 structures in our rivers prevent fish swimming up and downstream

We have installed many structures in our rivers, such as locks, weirs, and culverts (where the river flows through a giant pipe). They interrupt the natural flow, stop fish moving up and downstream and, in the Rother, trap huge amounts of sediment behind them. 

Let rivers be rivers!

We’ve spent the last few hundred years manipulating river flows, trying to drain land, direct rivers, hold water back here and there to suit our human needs.  We’ve now realised the error of our ways and will likely spend the next few decades trying to reverse this! 

The Lavant has been straightened over many years

Straightening rivers and forcing them into man-made channels prevents them from behaving naturally. Luna Leopold also said ‘The stream has to have change’. Our rivers need to be free to grow and shrink, shift and sway. They should be sinuous, meandering here and there in braided multi-channels. Rivers and floodplains should be one in the same entity. Our desire to control rivers is often at our peril - we see more frequent and severe flooding events downstream where rivers are constrained. Where there’s space to do so we need to re-wet the landscape, allowing nature to do its thing.  There are so many benefits for us too.

75 Invasive Non-Native Species are rampaging in our riverscapes

A huge number of invasive species are known to have set up home in and around our rivers.  Their impact on our native species can be catastrophic. The American Mink is one of the worst offenders - where mink live water voles dare not tread. Water voles cannot have a hope of returning to their homes whilst mink are inhabiting these rivers. 

Water voles have been forced out of much of their habitat by mink

Sewage stinks

There are over 1100 ‘consented discharges’ across all of the rivers in our patch.  A ‘consented discharge’ allows waste from water companies, agriculture, industries and homes to be put into the river. We all know about the stink from sewage overflows, but incredibly over 700 of these consented discharges are actually from homes with small private sewage treatment plants and septic tanks. If they are not well maintained our rivers are at risk.

Pollution from these consented discharges, or from accidental spills, kills wildlife, instantly or over time. It also reduces our ability to enjoy our rivers - no one wants to paddle in pee. 

Sewage pumping into the Lavant

‘Diffuse pollution’ also occurs as pollution is washed into the river from large areas of land, such as farm fields close to rivers which may have had a pesticide applied to them.  

Sealing our soils

Soils are incredible, and their story is inextricably linked with our rivers. In a natural system soils hold water during rainfall, making it available for plants and releasing it slowly to the riverscape over time. But in so many areas we are sealing our soils, installing hard surfaces instead.  Water rushes off hard surfaces, increasing the risk of flooding. Around 30,000 properties in our area are at risk of flooding from this type of ‘surface water’. 

Run-off also washes pollution from our roads into rivers. Using our cars leaves behind a toxic mix of chemicals on the surface of the road (think of the black slush when it snows). These are washed into our rivers - a poisonous peril for the wildlife living there.  

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Action for our riverscapes