Citizen scientists are being trained as the best hope to protect rivers from pollution and over-extraction as data suggests the Environment Agency’s new monitoring program leaves waterways unprotected.
A £ 7 million program is underway to set up citizen science tests across 10 river basins across England in an effort to standardize how volunteers do monitoring.
Modeled on tests carried out by volunteers at Chesapeake Bay in the United States, 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 basic voice to protect them.
“What we want in the end is to have thousands of people volunteering and monitoring their local rivers,” said Simon Browning of the Rivers Trust. “It could be 15-minute surveys or more detailed invertebrate surveys, which give us another level of data. We are trying to formalize the volunteer structure and standardize the monitoring so that we know the data is reliable.
“We want to bring with us as many people as possible on all the river basins of the country, so that by the end of the three years of the project there is no turning back, we will see volunteers working all over the country”.
The goal is for monitoring to be complemented by a network of sensors and for information to be collected and shared in a central viewing platform. The project, led by Rivers Trust and United Utilities, is funded through the first revolutionary water challenge of the Ofwat water regulator and involves academic partners. Browning, who initiated a citizen science monitoring project for the Westcountry Rivers Trust, which is ongoing, said the Environmental Agency’s testing regime was no longer widespread or comprehensive enough.
The EA should monitor the chemical quality of the rivers, focusing on the levels of phosphates, nitrogen, ammonia and dissolved oxygen. But citizen data collected in Devon highlighted flaws in the new EA testing program, adopted last year, which involves randomly selected sites for spot testing.
“Some of our river basins have gone from being monitored 12 times a year to nothing,” Browning said. “So it’s not so much a question of whether citizen science is better than EA monitoring, but where there is no data, citizen science monitoring can empower communities and engage them in understanding the problems in their rivers so they can talk and protect them.
“We want to see real benefits locally, with communities in towns and villages taking the local environment by the scruff of the neck and speaking for the rivers.”
Data from the Creedy River in Devon suggests that EA phosphate tests have dropped dramatically in 20 years. In 2000, the EA tested 12 phosphate sites on the Creedy 12 times a year; for a total of 144 tests. Tests began to decline in 2014 with the sampling rate slashed drastically to a minimum of four times a year. By last year, monitoring of the original 12 sites was abandoned altogether. The sites were replaced with randomly selected areas as part of the new EA spot testing system, and 67 phosphate tests were performed at these new sites in 2021, compared to a maximum of 189 tests conducted in 2002.
On the Creedy, one of the new withdrawal points is upstream of all sewage drains, built-up areas or productive agricultural land. Critics say the new system is likely to misrepresent the extent of water pollution across the country.
“This detailed spatial analysis at the local level [of the Creedy] reveals a huge change in the approach to monitoring, “said Browning.” Long-term sampling sites have been closed and abandoned, new ones have been started with a very small sampling regime – one in five years – and in places’ which are in no way representative of the overall water quality at the scale of the water body. “
The government’s annual funding for monitoring has halved in recent years. The agency said its new river surveillance network test was designed to provide a robust assessment of river health nationwide over time. The agency said it welcomed various emerging citizen science initiatives, which have promised to deliver practical results in a collaborative way.
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 have allowed us to concentrate our resources and target areas where the environment will benefit most “.