The State Of Our River

Simon Watts
November 5, 2021
Reporting Pollution on the River Aire

This blog post was written in mid-October before the government's Environment Bill went before Parliament and the fantastic and widely publicised public debate that has followed it. Unfortunately, we have been delayed in publishing it or updating it due to staff sickness. We are still publishing as it contains (amongst other things) some really interesting maps and data about our catchment.

It's quite a long blog. If you want to find out how to make a difference you can skip to the end to find links to actions to take now.

How healthy is the Aire?

The start of October saw the release of the "State Of Our Rivers" report by the Rivers Trust (a national charity that campaigns on behalf of the Rivers Trust movement). It makes grim reading. England's rivers are failing and looking close to home this story rings true.

Make no mistake, our rivers are improving. We mustn’t let community memories of foam blowing off the river and down streets in Castleford or fish gasping for air below Baildon weir dominate conversations. The passing policeman who told one of the catchment’s river fly monitors “You won’t find anything alive in the River Worth,” was wrong. Our rivers are full of life. Pollution sensitive fish species like Atlantic salmon and grayling can once again be found near Leeds. With them, otters and kingfishers have returned, but our rivers are not good.

Heron on the Aire with Brown Trout

However only five of the 51 water bodies in our catchment have good ecological health.

The State Of Our Rivers" report identifies the key impacts on our rivers as agriculture; the water treatment sector; and the urban and transport sector a quarter. Pollution is not the only problem, though, as abstraction and habitat destruction also play their part in impoverishing our rivers.

Agriculture and the Upper Aire

After finishing tackling large amounts of Himalayan Balsam on Eller Beck, I recently took a walk downstream through Craven looking for other areas it had spread to. Walking downstream for about three kilometres I found almost none. Intriguingly, this isn't the good news story I hoped for. Instead, I found many banks with sparse vegetation, leaving them open to erosion by high flows. Grazing, often at uncontrolled locations where sheep and cattle can actually walk into our rivers, also places significant pressure on our waterways. We know that soil washed into our rivers pollutes our rivers, adding nutrients and smothering the gravels that fish need for spawning.

Within the Aire, much of this comes from livestock rather than arable farming. Work such as that undertaken by the Upper Aire Project is key to excluding livestock from our riverbanks and providing farmers with alternative water sources. For farmers to get on board it is critically important that the government makes it profitable to become involved in environmental schemes. We can only hope that pilot schemes for Defra's Environmental Land Management Schemes start to give the clarity farmers need for long term business planning.

Cows grazing beside the River Aire
Photo © Bill Harrison (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme Phase 2 is a unique opportunity for the Aire catchment. It echos a key theme of the State Of Our Rivers report that nature holds the key to us becoming climate-resilient. Renaturalising and remeandering channels; reconnecting floodplains; together with the creation of natural flood management features like tree planting, leaky dams and soil aeration hold the key to reducing the flood risk to our homes and communities. We are currently involved in a pilot project working with landowners to identify natural flood management potential. If you would like to know more please get in touch.

In the meantime, we will once again be planting trees this winter. Even with the disruptions of Covid, our staff and volunteers have planted over 5,500 in the past two years. There will be many more needed.

Planted trees

Get involved

You can help improve our local rivers by volunteering at one of our weekly volunteer sessions. the work we do ranges from planting trees to cleaning up the riverbank to laying hedges. Through this we hope to will introduce you to our fantastic river, others who care about it and offer you an enjoyable and rewarding experience.

We're particularly keen to recruit volunteers for our new citizen science project. The work they will do will help us understand our catchment, its health and the opportunities for improvement in it. You can find out more on our volunteering page.

If you spot pollution happening you can report it to the Environment Agency on 0800 807060.

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The impact of cities like Bradford and Leeds

The sewerage infrastructure that runs our streets was first put there by the Victorians and fundamentally, whilst populations have grown and the way we live has changed, those sewers are no longer up to the job. House building puts increasing strain on the sewerage network. To prevent sewage backing up into our homes, water companies are permitted to overspill untreated sewage into rivers during extreme rainfall events. However, these discharges happen with alarming regularity. The worst combined sewer overflow in our catchment is at Ingrow Lane in Keighley and discharged for a total of 2092 hours in 2020 (139 events of over 12 hours). You can explore your local area on the Rivers Trust's interactive sewerage map here. The blame for this doesn't rest solely with water companies and housebuilders. We buy new stuff and flush disposal cleaning products downpipes that were never built for them. Wet wipes form a depressing feature of every river clean up we do. We need the government to bring legislation that not only impacts water companies but manufacturers too. If you use wet wipes, please put them in the bin and NOT down the toilet.

At the launch of the State of Our Rivers report the Minister for the Environment Rebecca Pow boasted that, over the hill in Ilkley, her government has taken the step of designating the first river with the first inland bathing water status. This is a river I swim in regularly with my kids but she omitted to mention it is completely failing to meet the standards for this. (She also incorrectly named the swimming spot Otley which would no doubt horrify a few locals!) We all deserve rivers that are fit to play in whether it be fishing, swimming or canoeing.

Yorkshire Water has made some significant improvements over the past couple of years but our water bodies are still heavily impacted by both partially treated and untreated sewage discharges. Industry has played a huge role in the history of Airedale and we find a great deal of it remains along the banks of the Rivers Aire and Wharfe. We need to work with these industries to help them understand the risks they pose to the environment. Both Bradford and Leeds made the top five areas with serious water pollution incidents.

To tackle pollution in our rivers we need major investment in our sewage infrastructure. This is something that we not only need the government to demand but also to be willing as water consumers to pay for it.

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The change we need

All these problems need urgent action. Our rivers cannot wait for politicians and corporations to improve our environment little step by little step. They need bold leaps into action.

We need robust legislation to protect our waterways and an Environment Agency that is funded well enough to enforce them.

We need the funding in place that enables charitable partners, farmers, landowners and water companies to make the investments that create sustainable change. Some of this will come from the government but some must come from us recognising the value of our environment and accepting that we must fund it, for example through the prices we pay for food.

We also need to take local action - wet wipes and fat in the bin not down the drain, take your litter home with you (you might leave it on the land, which is bad enough, but much of it then gets blown or washed into our rivers, get a qualified plumber to put in your washing machine or dishwasher and make sure they connect to the sewer and not the surface water drains and come to volunteer your little bit "every little helps" (to steal ASDA's tag line!)

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Exploring our catchment

Only when people realise there is a problem are they likely to act. So we believe the best way to create this change is to share information. We need to connect communities to their river and each other to demand and bring about change. By making this data public we can hold regulators and polluters accountable.

As an example of the sort of information we hold and make freely available, the following map was created as part of a workshop to look for opportunities for improvement within Bradford Council's area. We want to use data to drive our decision making allowing us to make the most impact with our work.

This might seem a bit 'techy' but bear with us, it is simpler than it looks.

You will need to press the ">>" button in the top left hand corner to reveal the legend. Then click the tick boxes to add or remove layers of information from the map. Clicking the ">" button by each layer will reveal the full key.

An explanation of what each layer means can be found below.

Public Paths Outer / Bradford Public Paths / Other Paths Outer - Public footpaths in the Bradford area. Supplied by the Council as three layers but can be considered one dataset. This map was produced for a Bradford event so data has not been added for Craven or Leeds.

EA Risk of flood rivers Aire Clip - An Environment Agency assessment of flood risk/

Bradford Council Land - Land owned by Bradford Council

Cat1 2 Env Pollution Incident Aire Catch / Cat 3 Pollution Incident Waterbody heatmap - Water pollution incidents categorised from Category 1 (most serious) to Category 4 (least serious and not included in this map). Category 3 incidents are mapped as a heat map rather than individual incidents (as Category 1 and 2 are). You can read more on page 36 of this document here.

RiverObstaclesLayer Aire Catchment - Obstacles blocking fish passage in the river.

YorkshireWaterEDM2020 Clip - Yorkshire Water "Event Duration Monitoring" recording how long and how frequently combined sewer overflows released diluted sewage into water courses. You can read more here.

WB Aire Catchment WFD 2019 Fish 08OCT / WB Aire Catchment WFD 2019 Invertebrates 08OCT / WB Aire Catchment WFD 2019 Phosphate 08OCT / WB Aire Catchment WFD 2019 Ammonia 08OCT / WFD River Surface Water Aire Catchment only 2019 - The EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) which was adopted by the UK in 2000, imposes standards for the improvement of all aspects of water environments, including rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater. It requires surface water or ‘blue space’  to be of good quality by 2027. It assesses a number of chemicals and ecological components and rates them from High to Bad.

WB Aire Catchment WFD 2019 - Individual catchments are given assessments based on the lowest scoring component.

Aire Catchment River outlines - Our major watercourses.

OSMapWaterCourses Aire Clip - And minor ones.

Aire Catchment - The area covered by our catchment.

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A call to action

There are lots that you can do to make a difference. Why not join us as a volunteer on the riverbank or make small changes in your home, like installing a water butt? The Aire Rivers Trust doesn't work alone. Nearly every river has Rivers Trust and we have an umbrella organisation called "The Rivers Trust" that campaigns on our behalf. Head to their website to learn more about the issues facing our rivers and to help them by writing to your MP.

If, after looking at the map above, you have suggestions of projects for us to develop to improve the Aire catchment please get in touch with our Catchment Officer, Billy Coburn, by emailing him at billy.coburn@aireriverstrust.org.uk .

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© Copyright Aire Rivers Trust 2020
The Aire Rivers Trust is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales No: 07464227 and a Registered Charity No: 1145609
Registered Office at: 38 Morton Lane, East Morton, Keighley BD20 5RS
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