Citizen scientists are being trained as the best hope to protect rivers from pollution and over-abstraction as data suggests the Environment Agency’s new monitoring programme leaves waterways unprotected.
A £7m programme to set up citizen science testing in 10 river catchments across England is under way in an attempt to standardise the way volunteers carry out the monitoring.
Modelled on the testing carried out by volunteers at Chesapeake Bay in the US, the third largest estuary in the world, the project aims to create thousands of volunteer scientists who will monitor their local rivers and provide a grassroots voice to protect them.
“What we want eventually is to have thousands of people volunteering and monitoring their local rivers,” said Simon Browning of the Rivers Trust. “These could be 15-minute surveys or more detailed invertebrate surveys, which give us another level of data. We are trying to formalise the volunteer structure and standardise the monitoring so that we know the data is reliable.
“We want to bring along as many people as possible over all the river catchments across the country, so that by the end of the three years of the project there is no going back, we will see volunteers operating across the country.”
The aim is for the monitoring to be complemented by a network of sensors and the information will be gathered and shared into a central visualisation platform. The project, which is led by the Rivers Trust and United Utilities, is funded via the water regulator Ofwat’s first water breakthrough challenge, and involves academic partners. Browning, who set up a citizen science monitoring project for the Westcountry Rivers Trust which is ongoing, said the Environment Agency testing regime was no longer widespread or comprehensive enough.
The EA should monitor the chemical quality of rivers, focusing on levels of phosphates, nitrogen, ammonia and dissolved oxygen. But citizen data gathered in Devon exposed the holes in the new EA testing programme, adopted last year, which involves randomly selected sites for spot testing.
“Some of our river catchments have gone from being monitored 12 times a year to nothing,” said Browning. “So it is not so much a question of whether citizen science is better than EA monitoring but where there is no data at all, citizen science monitoring can empower communities and get them involved in understanding the issues in their rivers so that they can speak up and protect them.
“We want to see real benefits at a local level, with communities in towns and villages taking the local environment by the scruff of the neck and speaking up for rivers.”
Data from the River Creedy in Devon suggests the EA’s phosphate tests have dramatically reduced in 20 years. In 2000 the EA tested 12 sites for phosphates on the Creedy 12 times a year; totalling 144 tests. Testing started to drop off in 2014 with sample frequency reduced dramatically to a low of four times a year. By last year monitoring of the original 12 sites was abandoned altogether. Sites have been replaced with randomly selected areas as part of the new EA spot test system and there were 67 phosphate tests at these new sites in 2021, compared with a high of 189 tests conducted in 2002.
On the Creedy one of the new sample points is upstream of all sewage discharges, population centres or productive farmland. Critics say the new system is likely to misrepresent the scale of water pollution across the country.
“This detailed, local level spatial analysis [of the Creedy] reveals a huge shift in monitoring approach,” said Browning. “Long-term sampling sites have been wound down and abandoned, new ones initiated with a much-reduced sampling regime – one year in five – and at ‘random’ locations that are in no way representative of overall water quality at the waterbody scale.”
Annual funding from the government for monitoring activity has halved in recent years. The agency said its new River Surveillance Network testing was designed to provide a robust assessment of the health of rivers nationally over time. The agency said it welcomed the various emerging citizen science initiatives, which promised to deliver practical results in a collaborative manner.
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We continue to take tens of thousands of water quality samples every year as part of our work to keep rivers clean. In recent years technological advances and increased efficiency has enabled us to concentrate our resources, and target areas where the environment will benefit most.”