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Citizens’ army will monitor condition of our waterways

NewsCitizens’ army will monitor condition of our waterways

Members of the public are learning to find aquatic invertebrates to identify the impact of pollution, nutrient enrichment, chemicals and flow stress.

SmartRivers, a nationwide citizen science scheme, is helping to fill the monitoring gap after annual funding from the government for monitoring activity halved in recent years.

John Barker, 70, is part of campaign group Friends of the River Ems which tracks the state of the rare chalk stream in Emsworth, West Sussex.

He warned the river is most at risk because of over abstraction meaning it suffers from a lack of water at critical times of the year.

He said: “Luckily on the Ems, pollution is not a big problem. There’s no doubt about it, unsustainable abstraction is the issue that we’re really, really struggling with.

“There seems to be more and more realisation by local governments and local people about how important these places are.

“For us, we’re not looking at these invertebrates for the sake of looking at them. We’re looking at them to see what they’re telling us; what the good news is and what the bad news is.”

READ MORE: Locals now taking back control of their rivers through citizen science

The group said Portsmouth Water has extracted water from the river’s underground sources in the South Downs for years.

This threatens the lives of fish, other wildlife and the health of the river system.

Mr Barker said: “In the winter, there’s water (in the river) but in periods from June onwards, you will start seeing the river levels going down dramatically and then we’re in trouble.”

He said there is a risk of losing sea trout, kingfishers, water voles, which call the river home.

SmartRivers instructors Matt Owen-Farmer and Richard Osmond demonstrated their “double act” for the volunteers on the bank of the river.

Mr Owen-Farmer said: “[Training citizen scientists] will supplement and help the statutory bodies make informed decisions. It’s very much a case of working with them and learning from each other.

“It will be a case of the EA listening to volunteers about what their concerns are and where their concerns are. And the EA asking citizen scientists to help them gather information and data where they think there are concerns.

“It’s about building that bridge between the two.”

Funding for environmental protection services provided by the government’s Environment Agency has been cut by 50 per cent over the past decade, an analysis showed last year.

According to an analysis by Prospect, a trade union which represents professionals in the public sector, the government’s grant for “environmental protection” was 56 per cent lower in August 2022 in real terms than it was in 2009/10.

James Overington, water policy officer at WildFish, said: “Groups of these river guardians are springing up across the country and with them comes a new wave of water quality data.

“With EA monitoring continuing to decline over the past decade, a void has formed in our understanding.

“Without this valuable data, our rivers are becoming increasingly harder to protect.”

A spokeswoman for Portsmouth Water said: “We do not take any water directly from the River Ems.

“The River Ems is a complex water source, and as chalk streams naturally do, this dries in its upper reaches in the height of summer.

“Working with local groups and the Environment Agency, Portsmouth Water is actively seeking to improve the environmental status of the river Ems, and all of the chalk streams we’re lucky enough to have in the area.”

An Environment Agency spokeswoman said: “We hugely value the contribution of England’s citizen scientists and share their passion for the environment.

“We welcome various emerging initiatives and look forward to working more closely together to help find solutions to the complex problems facing our waterways.””

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