‘We’re not going to leave’: Volunteers hit back at England’s polluted rivers | rivers
IIf you go down quiet stretches of river in the UK at the right time of year, you’re likely to find people peacefully standing there with a fishing rod, staring into the sparkling, steady stream, hoping to get a nibble.
Anglers, of whom there are at least 2 million in England, descend whenever they can into their precious stretches of waterway to tend to them, trim vegetation, create spawning habitats in areas wet and even thoroughly clean the gravel. It sounds like a peaceful enough chase, but when the Guardian went to visit some members of the Angling Trust at their clubs around Reading, there was palpable anger in the air.
Indeed, water companies have dumped waste in many of these stretches, destroying the hard work, money and hours fishermen put into keeping the rivers healthy. Now they are fighting back with determined anglers across the country testing their stretches of river for pollution using kits provided by the Angling Trust. Often no one else will – reductions in testing by the Environment Agency mean many sites are not regularly tested, making it impossible to know the true state of sewage pollution in England .
So far, 150 volunteers have signed up for the sampling program in England, covering 50 rivers across 18 catchments, and more clubs are signing up every day. Their results so far are quite grim – half of all samples have exceeded the upper limit for phosphate and 60% for nitrate. These are levels that can seriously damage rivers, as they promote algae growth and harm fish health. High phosphate and nitrate levels are telltale signs of a potential sewage spill.
“It’s sad but necessary that anglers have to do this,” says Martin Salter, the former MP for Reading who is now policy officer at the Angling Trust, looking sadly at the River Loddon. Anglers found this chalk creek to have above average phosphate and nitrate levels.
“This is proof that operator self-monitoring has been a colossal failure, as evidenced by Southern Water falsifying its own results,” Salter said. “We are determined to ensure that this kind of behavior is not tolerated and that we will use our results to expose them. We will use this ploy to uncover the truth, which we will then bring to the attention of the government and the public.
The Guardian joined Richard Maude of the Twyford and District Fishing Club as he tested Loddon’s chalk stream, throwing down a small white plastic bucket to take a sample for testing. Their stretch of the river is next to a wilderness-looking trail; a secluded and quiet oasis near a relatively urban area.
Maude has been fishing there for a few years since he moved to the area, but has been angling since childhood. “Typical, like most working-class guys I guess; it was me, my father or my grandfather, who taught me to fish and it stayed with me,” he says.
And the people he fishes with near Reading have also been doing the hobby since childhood and are “in love” with the river. “Now this river is fished by a lot of older people – some have been fishing it for 50 years. Everyone is in love with the Loddon.
“The pollution that has been pumped into the river has been fairly well documented for some time, so we all want to do whatever we can to improve the situation, to help, and if that means coming here to take a sample, we will. .do it,” adds Maude.
All club members would be well prepared to spot a pollution event – they spend more time looking at the river than perhaps any other user of our waterways.
“We saw areas of the river that looked different,” says Maude. “When it happens here, I feel like you may have poured red paint into the water; you can see it’s kinda brown and ugly. It doesn’t look good. Much of it is perhaps instinctive for people who are used to looking at the river.
Standing on the bank with Maude, the river is beautiful; you can pretty much see all the way to the bottom. It has just rained, making the lush vegetation even greener, and the riverbank is lined with ripe blackberries, wild hops and fleshy sloes.
“At the moment it looks exactly how a river should look,” he says, “But sometimes bits and pieces look like water from old paintbrushes. That’s how you know something might be wrong- be not. Now hopefully we can get the data to back that up.
Our next stop is the Swallowfield Angling Club. Members have rented their own land near their treasured waterway, complete with a wooden gate with a playful sign proudly displaying the club’s name. They have access to both Loddon and Blackwater, and you can see the hard work the members are doing to help the number of fish there. They have created a small marshy spawning area and maintain the bank so that it is rich in plants, but not overgrown.
Russ Hatchett, painter-decorator, does the testing here. “I’ve fished all my life,” he says. “I’ve certainly noticed a slow decline in fish over the past few years in these areas. We report fish that have been caught by anglers over the past seven years and there has certainly been a noticeable decline.
The water here flows quickly, so you don’t see the blue-green algae blooms that characterize sewage. But sometimes Hatchett is shocked to see the generally clear waters marked with a telltale brown stain. For someone who spends hours and hours tending to the river, this sticks to the throat.
“We notice a tea color in the water, which is not correct. We are very concerned which is why we have joined Angling Trust and are taking samples and hopefully holding someone accountable for this.
There is a real fury among anglers against water companies, who can undo years of painstaking conservation work with a single spill.
“They shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing,” he said, “it’s wrong. I think everyone would say that if you ask them. Especially when we pay them as a member of the public for their services.
Kristian Kent of the Angling Trust has a warning for water companies. “We won’t leave,” he said. “Citizen science is a fact of the world in the future, so they can’t just sweep it under the rug. If it was just a community group on the river, it’s easy to overlook. But now, when there are 150, and many more in the future, on most river basins in England, it’s hard to ignore.