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25 January 22

How Citizen Science projects and Real-Time Monitoring is helping to improve the health of the region’s chalk streams

In a new #podcast Affinity Water talks to Professor Kate Heppell, from Queen Mary University of London, who has been seconded for a year to work with the Chilterns Chalk Streams Project to monitor the health of precious chalk streams in the Chilterns AONB.

Standing by the River Chess at Restore Hope Latimer, Professor Heppell, explains why studying the pressures on chalk systems and rivers is important and how local people, through Citizen Science and volunteer programmes, and the use of sensors and real-time data can help to tackle water quality issues in rivers.

Part One can be listened to here: River Health Podcast: Part One - Professor Kate Heppell - YouTube

And in Part Two Professor Heppell meets Paul Jennings, Chair of the River Chess Association who joins in the conversation:

All kinds of pollutants can now be found in rivers such as the Chess. The water industry, agricultural activity, road networks and domestic habitats and activities can all be responsible for the broad range of pollutants seeping into rivers.

Prof Heppell says: “Nationally there are four big challenges associated with the health of chalk streams: physical modifications which can impact the flows; agricultural pollution in rural areas; sewage and wastewater treatment issues; and urban diffuse pollution with run off from roads and towns as well.”

She explains that turning concern about river health into action is key and that local authorities and highways agencies, conservation bodies, and local landowners, farmers and NGOs involved in the wider catchment activities need to work together to bring about change as well as the water only and sewage companies themselves and householders who use water.

Affinity Water’s Save Our Streams campaign has so far achieved over 170,000 sign ups and saved 5 million litres of water every day. The region is known to have one of the highest water uses in the UK and to be the home of 10 per cent of the Worlds chalk streams, approx. 24 in all. In 2020 Affinity Water announced its commitment to end unsustainable abstraction from these precious rivers, which was followed by voluntary action to stop abstraction from two sources in the Chess Valley. Moreover, Affinity Water and Thames Water recently worked with Arup to develop ‘chalk stream health metrics’, a set of indicators to provide a health baseline and help identify more actions for improving ecosystem services within the catchment, such as water quality, recreation or climate regulation.

Professor Heppell continued: “I’m seconded to the Chiltern Chalk Streams Project for a year to help identify the baseline water quality of the river Chess through a five-year project that involves water companies, Local Authorities, local landowners and NGOs. In the past we have used data collected as part of the Water Framework Directive, and we have looked at the ecological aspects of a river, the biodiversity, the geomorphology and the flows etc, to gauge the health of a river system, and used datasets collated by organisations like CaBA. The river metrics that are now being developed by the water companies may also be useful for us as we move forward to the next stage of the AMP process.”

Citizens’ Science projects will play a key role in the future she says, and she urges the public to get involved:

“There has been something of a citizens’ uprising but obviously although citizens have a role to play, we also recognise that the water companies need to do their job, the regulators need to do their job, and everybody needs to bring their bit to the table as well. I am really heartened that we have a lot of interest from the public now and from stakeholders, some of it galvanised by wild swimming but also other activities that are really raising the profile of the situation with our rivers in England at the moment.”

In Part Two Professor Heppell meets up with Paul Jennings, Chair of the River Chess Association.

Professor Heppell, explains the problems on the River Chess, why even a fast flow and clear water might not be a sign the river is healthy, and how population growth and climate change are pressing problems that need to be addressed:

“These rivers are classified as being over-abstracted which has led to low flow issues. We have to consider flows in the long term and how they will change due to population growth and climate change. We have multiple complex problems that are going to impact these rivers in the future, so we do all need to work together in partnership, including the public and citizen science initiatives which help to monitor the quality of water in the river.”

As they walk and talk Professor Heppell identifies plant life along the riverbank and explains how for the past two years a water quality sensor in the river has helped to monitor the quality of the water every fifteen minutes and that data can be sent to her mobile phone:

“This sensor is surrounded by vegetation, including Ranunculus, a really important eco-system engineer, that modifies flow and is a great habitat for insects, and at the banks of the river we have water cress and these all contribute to the health of the river.”

She goes on to explain: “These sensors can be connected to your computer or iPad so that you can see what the water quality is doing in real time as well. In the future we should be using more of these sensors networked together to look at river health and water quality to be able to then create predictive models of what is happening in response to climate change and population change in our catchments.”

Trees planted by the riverbanks can also be used to shade the river as climate change leads to hotter temperatures. “Riparian tree planting is important in order to shade the rivers, so temperatures don’t get as hot in the summer. Shallow chalk streams such as the River Chess can reach over 20 degrees centigrade in hot summers which may cause problems for fish populations”, she says.

Paul Jennings, Chair of the River Chess Association is also a supporter of improved river monitoring. He said: “The sensor data, is helping us to provide a really clear picture of how the river health is moving. In the past we gathered data perhaps once a month, or at other time when incidents happened but that may have been too late, this data gives us a consistent record over a period of time. The equipment has become more sophisticated and more robust. This is one of four sites we have on the River Chess, and we are looking to supplement this.

“Citizens Science programmes are assisting with these; they can work on helping to keep them clean and gather other data such as on riverflies. I am optimistic because the general public has got behind this, ten years ago very little was known about it, now people are more aware and are telling the politicians that using rivers for sewer discharges is unacceptable.

“Kate’s involvement is hugely important to us. We have someone who is an expert and can set up water quality monitoring systems. We are establishing procedures and putting in place the right equipment and right teams of people to get accurate data and without that data we can’t move forward.“

Professor Heppell finished by urging the public to get involved in the Citizen Science initiatives that are starting up to get to know our rivers better and to use their various skill sets.

“People should get involved in a different Citizen Science activity for each person depending on their interests,” she said.

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