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What Lies Beneath

A CITIZEN SCIENCE INVESTIGATION OF UK WATER QUALITY
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Or continue reading the snapshot of findings here

Introduction

Water quality is in crisis in the UK. According to the European Union Water Framework Directive, there is not a single river in the UK that is currently in an overall state of ‘good’ health. As such, there is an urgent and growing need to clean up the UK’s waterways.

Planet Patrol has produced this water quality report to investigate the current state of waterways in England and Scotland. Through analysis of these results, Planet Patrol has formed the following collection of key findings based on location.

  • Not one UK river is in an overall state of ‘good’ health
  • All test sites but one failed to meet the acceptable criteria for all parameters tested in this study
  • 68.75% of test sites failed to meet an acceptable concentration of phosphate
  • Not one UK river is in an overall state of ‘good’ health
  • All test sites but one failed to meet the acceptable criteria for all parameters tested in this study
  • 68.75% of test sites failed to meet an acceptable concentration of phosphate

In May 2022, Planet Patrol launched its first citizen science water quality testing pilot. Tests were run extensively across a wide breadth of parameters, making it the most comprehensive study of its kind. Planet Patrol recruited 57 members of the general public, not necessarily from scientific backgrounds, to take part. Spread across England and Scotland, these volunteers were trained to create ground-breaking research.

See the full report for information about the methodology, testing kits, site selection and volunteer training.

Foreword from our founder

We are all connected by the same waters. It is critical to life on earth but this essential part of the climate discussion is often overlooked. More than 1 billion people worldwide still lack basic access to clean water and it has been predicted that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will be facing water shortages. We are witnessing more intense and frequent storms globally and record droughts across the northern hemisphere have hit this summer.

 

I’ve paddleboarded all over the world to bring attention to environmental issues and how they affect our waterways. It doesn’t matter where I am, witnessing pollution and its impact is inescapable. Often it is visible in the form of plastic and other litter, spillages and odours but, sometimes, it’s far more insidious. It’s the subtle and gradual signs of pollution, largely unrecognisable to the naked eye, but with catastrophic and long lasting effects.

 

In 2018, whilst training for a paddleboarding expedition on the River Trent, I fell ill from ingesting river water. At the time, I put my illness down to misfortune but now I know it was not an isolated incident.

 

Poor water quality is as much a human health hazard as it is an ecological one.

 

It was this experience, and hearing many more like it from other water users, that prompted me to start investigating water quality and its true impact on both human health and aquatic environments.

 

By 2019, I’d completed three world firsts on my paddleboard and had written a guidebook of the UK’s waterways. Planet Patrol, the non-profit I set up in 2016, had grown into a nationwide network of paddleboarding clean-ups to capture litter data through citizen science. I was actively encouraging people to get on the water – the place that had restored my health after a cancer diagnosis a few years earlier – and I felt duty bound to do more. Not only to make people better informed, but to act on the increasingly urgent issue of poor water quality to help restore the health of our precious waterways.

 

This year we widened the citizen science opportunities at Planet Patrol. We ran the first ever observational survey looking into the state of UK waterways launched in October 2022. Autumn Water Watch invited participants to collect data about visible signs of pollution in and around freshwater environments. The findings reinforced the clear disconnect that exists between public perception and the reality of the water quality crisis – because so much of the damage is hidden below the water’s surface.

 

But, through our growing community of citizen scientists we’ve started to uncover what lies beneath to highlight a stark reality: the widespread, poor condition of our freshwater environments. The results have been disturbing.

 

In order to drive meaningful, long-lasting environmental change, gathering data is crucial. Only by building evidence to illustrate the true scale and extent of a problem, can it be accurately understood, communicated and acted upon.

 

Citizen science is not a ‘nice to have’ as part of research gathering, it is an essential component, particularly in lieu of adequate government funding that has seen a 74% reduction in water quality testing over the last 10 years. Deploying volunteers on mass scale can fill data gaps and provide real time insights into water quality to help set more ambitious targets across the UK and hold the government and big polluters to account. That is what this report sets out to achieve.

 

We don’t intend to stop here. These findings are the catalyst to launching in Spring 2023 a large-scale, nationwide citizen science water quality testing programme, called What Lies Beneath. Without the efforts of volunteers, environmental issues like poor water quality would persist, unobserved and unaccounted for, whilst invisibly destroying our environment and ecosystems until it’s too late.

Lizzie Carr

Founder, Planet Patrol

Foreword from our founder

We are all connected by the same waters. It is critical to life on earth but this essential part of the climate discussion is often overlooked. More than 1 billion people worldwide still lack basic access to clean water and it has been predicted that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will be facing water shortages. We are witnessing more intense and frequent storms globally and record droughts across the northern hemisphere have hit this summer.

I’ve paddleboarded all over the world to bring attention to environmental issues and how they affect our waterways. It doesn’t matter where I am, witnessing pollution and its impact is inescapable. Often it is visible in the form of plastic and other litter, spillages and odours but, sometimes, it’s far more insidious. It’s the subtle and gradual signs of pollution, largely unrecognisable to the naked eye, but with catastrophic and long lasting effects.

In 2018, whilst training for a paddleboarding expedition on the River Trent, I fell ill from ingesting river water. At the time, I put my illness down to misfortune but now I know it was not an isolated incident.

Poor water quality is as much a human health hazard as it is an ecological one.

It was this experience, and hearing many more like it from other water users, that prompted me to start investigating water quality and its true impact on both human health and aquatic environments.

By 2019, I’d completed three world firsts on my paddleboard and had written a guidebook of the UK’s waterways. Planet Patrol, the non-profit I set up in 2016, had grown into a nationwide network of paddleboarding clean-ups to capture litter data through citizen science. I was actively encouraging people to get on the water – the place that had restored my health after a cancer diagnosis a few years earlier – and I felt duty bound to do more. Not only to make people better informed, but to act on the increasingly urgent issue of poor water quality to help restore the health of our precious waterways.

This year we widened the citizen science opportunities at Planet Patrol. We ran the first ever observational survey looking into the state of UK waterways launched in October 2022. Autumn Water Watch invited participants to collect data about visible signs of pollution in and around freshwater environments. The findings reinforced the clear disconnect that exists between public perception and the reality of the water quality crisis – because so much of the damage is hidden below the water’s surface.

But, through our growing community of citizen scientists we’ve started to uncover what lies beneath to highlight a stark reality: the widespread, poor condition of our freshwater environments. The results have been disturbing.

In order to drive meaningful, long-lasting environmental change, gathering data is crucial. Only by building evidence to illustrate the true scale and extent of a problem, can it be accurately understood, communicated and acted upon.

Citizen science is not a ‘nice to have’ as part of research gathering, it is an essential component, particularly in lieu of adequate government funding that has seen a 74% reduction in water quality testing over the last 10 years. Deploying volunteers on mass scale can fill data gaps and provide real time insights into water quality to help set more ambitious targets across the UK and hold the government and big polluters to account. That is what this report sets out to achieve.

 

We don’t intend to stop here. These findings are the catalyst to launching in Spring 2023 a large-scale, nationwide citizen science water quality testing programme, called What Lies Beneath. Without the efforts of volunteers, environmental issues like poor water quality would persist, unobserved and unaccounted for, whilst invisibly destroying our environment and ecosystems until it’s too late.

Lizzie Carr

Founder, Planet Patrol

Foreword from our founder

We are all connected by the same waters. It is critical to life on earth but this essential part of the climate discussion is often overlooked. More than 1 billion people worldwide still lack basic access to clean water and it has been predicted that by 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will be facing water shortages. We are witnessing more intense and frequent storms globally and record droughts across the northern hemisphere have hit this summer.

I’ve paddleboarded all over the world to bring attention to environmental issues and how they affect our waterways. It doesn’t matter where I am, witnessing pollution and its impact is inescapable. Often it is visible in the form of plastic and other litter, spillages and odours but, sometimes, it’s far more insidious. It’s the subtle and gradual signs of pollution, largely unrecognisable to the naked eye, but with catastrophic and long lasting effects.

In 2018, whilst training for a paddleboarding expedition on the River Trent, I fell ill from ingesting river water. At the time, I put my illness down to misfortune but now I know it was not an isolated incident.

Poor water quality is as much a human health hazard as it is an ecological one.

It was this experience, and hearing many more like it from other water users, that prompted me to start investigating water quality and its true impact on both human health and aquatic environments.

By 2019, I’d completed three world firsts on my paddleboard and had written a guidebook of the UK’s waterways. Planet Patrol, the non-profit I set up in 2016, had grown into a nationwide network of paddleboarding clean-ups to capture litter data through citizen science. I was actively encouraging people to get on the water – the place that had restored my health after a cancer diagnosis a few years earlier – and I felt duty bound to do more. Not only to make people better informed, but to act on the increasingly urgent issue of poor water quality to help restore the health of our precious waterways.

This year we widened the citizen science opportunities at Planet Patrol. We ran the first ever observational survey looking into the state of UK waterways launched in October 2022. Autumn Water Watch invited participants to collect data about visible signs of pollution in and around freshwater environments. The findings reinforced the clear disconnect that exists between public perception and the reality of the water quality crisis – because so much of the damage is hidden below the water’s surface.

But, through our growing community of citizen scientists we’ve started to uncover what lies beneath to highlight a stark reality: the widespread, poor condition of our freshwater environments. The results have been disturbing.

In order to drive meaningful, long-lasting environmental change, gathering data is crucial. Only by building evidence to illustrate the true scale and extent of a problem, can it be accurately understood, communicated and acted upon.

Citizen science is not a ‘nice to have’ as part of research gathering, it is an essential component, particularly in lieu of adequate government funding that has seen a 74% reduction in water quality testing over the last 10 years. Deploying volunteers on mass scale can fill data gaps and provide real time insights into water quality to help set more ambitious targets across the UK and hold the government and big polluters to account. That is what this report sets out to achieve.

We don’t intend to stop here. These findings are the catalyst to launching in Spring 2023 a large-scale, nationwide citizen science water quality testing programme, called What Lies Beneath. Without the efforts of volunteers, environmental issues like poor water quality would persist, unobserved and unaccounted for, whilst invisibly destroying our environment and ecosystems until it’s too late.

Lizzie Carr

Founder, Planet Patrol

Current State of Water

Key stats:

  • Only 14% of English rivers have ‘good’ ecological status, a decrease in 13% since 2010
  • No English river has ‘good’ chemical status
  • Environmental funding has been cut by £120 million in 2009 to £40 million in 2020 by the government.

Government commitments:

  • All rivers in ‘good ecological status’ by 2027 X
  • 75% of terrestrial and freshwater protected sites restored to favourable conditions by 2042 X
  • At least three quarters of water returned to as close to natural state as soon as ‘practical’ X

Pressures on our waterways: 

  • 40% are impacted by agricultural pollution
  • 36% are impacted by sewage and wastewater pollution
  • 18% are impacted by urban diffuse pollution (run-off from towns, cities and transport)

(Note: These stats relate to surface waters in England)

The Future of the Waterways

The UK’s waterways are intrinsic to people’s livelihoods.They are extremely valuable for nature and biodiversity as well as personal wellbeing. As such, the poor water quality currently observed in the UK is likely to have severe economic and environmental implications.

Under the Water Framework Directive there is a legal obligation to improve water quality by 2027 and as the Retained EU Law Bill has not yet gone through Parliament, the 2027 target remains intact.

However as we have previously outlined in this report and in the recommendations, despite there being a legal obligation to improve water quality by 2027, the timelines attached to announced government interventions either overshoot 2027 (as in the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan) or do not attach specific enforcement dates (as with increase in Variable Monetary Penalties for polluters).

Unless remedial steps are taken, the EA predicts that climate change will exacerbate the poor health of waterways, causing further harm.

The UK climate change projections (UKCP18) predicts hotter drier summers; milder, wetter winters; rising sea levels and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events. Although the effects will vary based on geographical location, it is expected that a changing climate will alter the flow of many UK rivers. In scenarios of lessening river flow, concentrations of pollutants will be higher resulting in greater impacts on biodiversity. In other locations rainfall is predicted to increase, potentially resulting in a higher frequency of combined sewer overflow usage, and consequently a higher frequency of heavily polluted wastewater being released into the environment. It is likely run-off from agricultural land and urban areas would also increase.

In addition to being forecast to be severely impacted by climate change, waterways are also a key component in many climate adaptation responses. In a review of 1,800 climate adaptation strategies, over 80% were water-related. It is therefore clear that not only is clean water essential for human health, but also for tackling climate change. As waterways are on the frontline of the climate crisis it is essential that we take urgent action to improve water quality.

Acknowledgements

With thanks to Planet Patrol’s academic partners and advisors at the University of Nottingham and Loughborough University – Dr Thomas Stanton, Dr Matthew Johnson, Dr Lisa Yon and Andrea Sartorius – and the citizen scientists who, without their commitment and participation, this report would not have been possible.

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