At this time of year, my fishing friend Neil Patterson once wrote of the River Kennet, a river just wants to be left alone: “As black as Indian ink, it slides silently through wood and water-meadow, travelling incognito, fusing with the low hanging sky… Weary of running a year without a rest, she flows back into herself to collect her thoughts, and there is much to think about.”
But these coldest, darkest months, when rivers rightly turn their backs, also make the best time for peering into their roiled, reflective currents for some self-examination of our own. What are we doing for them? What more could we be doing? And maybe most importantly: what’s really up with Britain’s rivers?
Let’s start with the biggest anomaly of them all: the Thames (pictured at Kew, west London). In late October 2010, the UK’s Environment Agency (EA) was awarded the International Riverfoundation’s Thiess Riverprize for its long-term success in cleaning up London’s river.
Then, less than a fortnight later, WWF-UK revealed the results of a community-engagement campaign designed to get people thinking about their “best” and “worst” local rivers. In this vote the Thames came second best… and also resoundingly worst.
Since the runner-up worst rivers were the Kennet and Mersey (itself the winner of the International Riverprize as long ago as 1999), this might simply suggest that the general public hasn’t realised that our rivers are getting cleaner. Yet beyond the Thames, the broader trend of the EA’s own figures, also published last October, rather gives that the lie.
No fewer than 72 per cent of English and Welsh rivers are currently failing European targets, with the number of pristine rivers falling in the past year from five to four. Today, only 26 per cent of rivers in England and Wales are classified as “good” – including the Thames – while 56 per cent are “moderate” and 14 per cent are “poor”. None, as Defra Minister Richard Benyon MP admits, are really improving any faster than “a snail’s pace”.
So where’s the hope?
Answer: those European targets, and specifically the Water Framework Directive (WFD), perhaps the best piece of legislation ever to come out of Brussels, setting continent-wide targets of restoring all rivers to “good” or better ecological condition by 2015.
Thanks to our oddly British penchant for taking EU directives seriously, the WFD has shot the health of surface waters in England and Wales up the political agenda like a fresh-run salmon up a new fish pass. Sites such as the Lambourn’s confluence with the Kennet, designated as a Special Area of Conservation, have already received heavy-duty attention from the EA, reducing obstructions and replacing thousands of tonnes of spawning gravels since 2008. And every lesser-designated river’s EA teams are currently compiling wish-lists of measures to get their patches up to WFD standards.
There’s also hope that the “Tumescent Society” (as I heard it termed, not entirely tongue in cheek, at a recent industry gathering) can help. Away from the EA’s ongoing flood-risk management role, its new post-cuts biodiversity brief looks set to focus far more on regulating, advising and facilitating third-sector partnerships on the ground.
Will this deliver? As one of those newly heaven-sent volunteers, I’ve benefited for years from the dedication of many frontline EA staff, and I find it unthinkable to lose the hands-on talents of these expert practitioners. But money’s so tight, and our rivers’ problems are so pervasive – from weirs and over-nutrification to sewage and filthy urban runoff – that maybe we do all need to find new ways of pulling together.
Between the environmental third sector’s latest Blueprint for Water and the government’s imminent White Paper on the Environment, the year 2011 may prove definitive for our rivers.
And as the winter Kennet, Lambourn and Wandle roll cold and dark down to the Thames, we’re watching with the greatest possible interest.