Citizen scientists join the fight to clean up rivers

John takes a sample

Citizen scientist John Pratt collects a sample from the Evenlode River for research

The past year has witnessed public anger over the pollution of rivers and waterways.

According to the charity Earthwatch, people are increasingly taking pollution monitoring into their own hands.

John Pratt was fishing in the Evenlode River which flows through the Cotswold hills. He’s taking a chemistry kit now.

A local resident for 33 years, the river has become part of his life.

So when one summer the crystalline water began to resemble soup, he decided to act.

Some may join the protest or post pictures of polluted rivers on social media, but John has become a citizen scientist. He is one of many across the country hoping his data will help clean up rivers.

Cleaning up a river in north London

Local patrols are watching everything from plastic pollution to declining fish stocks

Over the year, thousands of people took part in protests against sewage spills in rivers and beaches from Essex to Edinburgh. At the same time, there has been a boom among citizen scientists who are paying attention to the state of the country’s waterways.

In the UK there is a long tradition of public involvement in scientific research, including tracking the numbers of plants, birds and insects.

But as more people spend their time paddleboarding or wild swimming, there is a growing interest in sounding the alarm about pollutants ranging from plastic to chemicals.

Channel swimmer Peter Green

Channel swimmer Peter Green holds a protest against the dumping of untreated sewage into the sea

Earthwatch, which trains citizen scientists, says the number of community groups monitoring chemical pollution has doubled in the last year alone. And this stretch of Evenlode now has more samples taken by citizen scientists than anyone else.

Earthwatch trains volunteers like John Pratt to test nitrates and phosphates, chemicals found in fertilizers, sewage and slurry.

They are naturally present in small amounts, but in excess can cause extensive algal blooms and kill fish and invertebrates.

The data John is collecting at Evenlode is helping scientists and regulators get a better picture of how pollution levels change over time.

“I’m just one of many citizen scientists who care about the health of the river,” explains John, looking out over this area of ​​outstanding beauty near Charlbury.

“We hope that through dialogue and the actions of the water utilities, it will be possible to restore Evenlode to its pre-2000 state.”

Evenlode meanders to join the Thames through picturesque towns. The early 20th century poet Hilaire Belloc wrote of the “lovely” Evenlode and how it bound his heart to English soil.

However, today the river is plagued by pollution, which causes weed growth, a decline in fish and insect numbers, and cloud cover for much of the year. It’s not lonely.

England’s rivers are “in a mess”, polluted by a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, agricultural waste and pollution, according to a report by MPs from the Environmental Audit Committee.

Monitoring systems have been described as “outdated, underfunded and inadequate”.

Earthwatch’s Dr Heather Moorhouse says citizen scientists cannot replace the work of regulators, but they can put pressure on polluters to clean up their activities.

“Citizen science fills the information gap and helps us understand the quality of the water in our rivers,” he says.

“But this data needs to be used to hold polluters accountable and invest in improvements to how our rivers are managed.”

The main problem for Evenlode, like many rural rivers, is pollution from sewage and agricultural waste, says Dr Izzy Bishop, a lecturer in ecology at UCL in London.

And the “huge increase” in the number of people collecting data through citizen science helps keep river pollution on the political agenda.

“The visibility and transparency of the data collected by the public is one of the main drivers of pushing this to the political agenda,” he says.

Beach protest, Whitstable

People gather at Tankerton Beach in Kent to protest against the discharge of sewage

As for John, he hopes that one day he will be able to relive his childhood memories.

“We all have childhood memories in common during the summer when we took off our shoes and socks and paddled in streams and rivers and could see our toes as we waded knee-deep,” she says.

“It is possible on some of our tributaries, on some burns in Scotland, on some streams in Wales, but on our poor river Evenlode it is no longer possible.”

Follow Helen on Twitter @hbriggs.

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