New research to examine how to improve the quality of UK rivers

Five new research projects will examine the impact of pollution on UK rivers.

Freshwater ecosystems are facing multiple pressures from a cocktail of pollutants, including chemicals, microplastics, pharmaceuticals, invasive species and land management practices.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) says that as a result, most of the UK’s rivers do not have good ecological status.

Only 14% of streams in England, 46% in Wales, 50% in Scotland and 31% in Northern Ireland meet the threshold.

Poor water quality can cause loss of life in rivers, threaten the structure and stability of the food chain, be dangerous for bathing, and lead to increased needs and costs for drinking water treatment.

The researchers received funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Defra’s £8.4 million Understanding changes in quality of UK Freshwaters programme.

They will study how pollutants enter, leave and interact with rivers and supporting ecosystems.

The study will also determine how the movement of pollutants will be changed with changes in the water cycle and work to create better tools for monitoring and measuring pollution.

Water Minister Rebecca Pow said: “The stresses being placed on our rivers are many and complex – from growing urban development and agricultural practices, to the increasing diversity of chemicals and pharmaceuticals used by society and pressure from transport pollution.

“We are going further and faster than any other government to protect and improve the health of our rivers, including taking steps to end the environmental damage caused by wastewater spills.

“This funding is welcome. It will enable researchers to carry out vital studies by monitoring and measuring the pollution making its way into our precious waterways.

“Monitoring the impacts of climate change will also be important.

‘This knowledge will be used to improve the water quality in our rivers, bringing benefits now and in the future.’

As well as studying the impact of climate change on water quality in rivers, the projects will examine how concentrations of multiple chemicals vary in freshwater, using nine catchments in Yorkshire: rivers Aire, Calder, Derwent, Don, Nidd, Ouse, Swale, Ure and Wharfe.

Research at the River Thames and Bristol Avon sites will examine how freshwater pollutants affect aquatic invertebrates and plants.

While studies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Northern and Western England will examine how livestock farming, its waste and slurry and mitigation practices change water quality in the UK.

A site at River Almond in Scotland will examine how interactions between climate and land use changes and emerging contaminants in rivers will occur.

The programme’s freshwater quality champions Professor Pippa Chapman and Professor Joseph Holden, from the University of Leeds, said: ‘There are enormous pressures on water quality in UK rivers. These are likely to be exacerbated by climate change.

‘Through collaboration between researchers, land and water managers, and policymakers, the program will help ensure that our rivers and other waterways are more resilient to future land-use and climate change.’

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