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England’s First Water Quality Relay: Paddle Boarding Challenge Unveils Startling Results

Race for Rivers combined paddle boarding with water quality testing and data collection every 5km, during a 642km challenge across the length of England’s waterways. Over 100 amazing volunteers signed up to paddle various distances and together they recorded more than 420 samples during September and October 2023.

Our community scientists looked at five different water quality parameters including coliform bacteria, phosphates, pH, nitrites and nitrates. Every reading was documented in Planet Patrol’s app to give a real-time view into water health across the country.

The findings come as the UK government announced its new nature package to restore 600km of rivers nationwide – less than the distance covered in this pioneering 28-day challenge.

Shockingly, the data revealed a staggering 83% of waterways tested across England showed evidence of sewage pollution, surpassing the established threshold levels of coliform bacteria deemed safe for human bathing.

Results also showed 74% of the testing sites failed to meet current phosphate standards, with alarming rates observed in the River Thames (93% failure rate) and the River Wey (88% failure rate).

Additionally, elevated levels of nitrates were recorded at 42% of the sites. Nitrates and phosphates, common forms of nutrient pollution stemming from wastewater treatment, sewage, and agriculture, pose severe threats to aquatic environments. These pollutants can contribute to harmful algal blooms and oxygen depletion in the water, posing risks to both biodiversity and public health.

Our partner academic Dr. Thomas Stanton from Loughborough University commented on the significance of the Race for Rivers initiative: “Race for Rivers has highlighted the potential of community engagement in advancing our understanding of Britain’s blue and green spaces. While concerning, the results of the Race for Rivers testing are not surprising and emphasise the need for concerted monitoring efforts in our freshwaters.”

This initiative begins to address the huge information deficit left from an 88% reduction in water quality monitoring over the last decade by the Environment Agency – from 160,000 samples in 2013 to just 19,400 in 2023. 

Planet Patrol’s founder, Lizzie Carr MBE said: “Our findings come as the government announces plans to restore 600km of rivers as part of its wider nature package, but no dates are in place to complete the restoration and there are no plans for the remaining 199,400kms of rivers also in a current state of emergency. This pledge doesn’t scratch the surface of what’s needed to restore our rivers.

Empowering individuals through community science is not just a response to the inadequacies of government funding and testing — it’s a revolutionary force in filling crucial information gaps left by the current lack of comprehensive monitoring. Community science has proven itself to be a formidable tool, offering credible and robust data collection capabilities that efficiently span widespread areas. This initiative is not just about gathering data; it’s a testament to the collective anger and determination of people who demand meaningful action to address the escalating water quality crisis.”

We want to thank all of our volunteers, pacesetters and supporters for taking acton and getting involved in Race for Rivers. We couldn’t have done it without you.

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