Water: The last chance saloon


What would the world be once bereft of wet and of wildness, let them be left, let them be left, the wildness and wet, long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.’ Gerard Manley Hopkins, poet, visionary, and Jesuit priest wrote those words after a visit to Loch Lomond in 1881. Over a hundred years later, having bashed and bullied our wetlands into submission, a new piece of European legislation is being hailed by the RSPB water policy team as a potential saviour for our wild and wet places, and for sustainable water use. In 2000 the European Parliament voted in a new European Water Directive. Due to be implemented by nation states over the next ten years, it remains to be seen whether our government will grasp this opportunity with full mettle.

Life needs water

Fresh water is the most precious thing on this planet. Water accounts for between 70 and 90% of the body weight of all living creatures. Life began 3-4billion years ago in water, the ‘primordial soup’. Without water there would be no life, but of the 1.4 billion cubic kilometres of water on our planet, only around 2.5% of the earth’s water is fresh and of that, 70% is locked away from use in glaciers, snow and deep underground aquifers. Globally the world’s people withdraw 3,500 cubic kilometres of fresh water per year and contaminate 5,800 cubic kilometres.

People need water

Early civilisations of humans sprang from river valleys and floodplains. We want to be near water for staying alive, for cooking, for transport, agriculture, cleaning, industry. Salmon have been smoked, crayfish steamed, Trout tickled, elvers netted from the Severn. Henley has been rowed, The Tweed swum, The Lugg birded. Dippers have dipped and otters have plinked, and spangled water beetles have, well, spangled. The uses and beauty, the pricelessness of water barely need spelling out, and yet we use it as though it were worthless. We dump shopping trolleys and plastic bags, grim chemicals and even our own sewage in it and despite all this, water goes on with its nigh-on miraculous, solar-powered cycle of going up as evaporation and coming down as rain, self cleansing.

World wide around 67% of consumed water is for agriculture, 23% for industry and 8% for domestic use. To produce one cup of orange juice takes 220 litres of water, one kilogram of rice in the tropics requires 5,000 times its weight in water. As we become more civilised we use more water. Water use has outstripped population growth by a factor of two.

Around the world people experience the water cycle very differently. In the US, each person consumes around 2,162 cubic meters of water each year, an order of magnitude above the 244 cubic meters consumed by the average African. Around 20% of the world population 1.3billion people lack access to safe drinking water and at least 2million children die each year from water borne diseases. In the Chilean desert at Iquique no rain fell for one stretch of 14 years, while Cherrapunji India had 22 meters of rain in one year. The average person in Djibouti, the most water-scarce country in the world, has 23 cubic meters of freshwater available. The average Icelander has 29,000 times as much. Due to these inequalities, and our profligate use of water, many environmentalists believe water will be the object of the major international conflicts in the future. In Britain we are relatively water rich, but we have pushed our water resources to the limit.

We don’t look after our water. ‘In the west it is said, water flows uphill towards money’. A number of rivers have been nearly dried up. One now flows backwards. There are huge reservoirs where once there was desert. There is desert…where there were once huge shallow swamps and lakes. It still isn’t enough.’ Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert.

Drying up: A quarter of Britain was once wetland. Bogs and fens and marshes and reed beds and wet woodland. Rivers used to meander all over the place, leaving soggy patches in fields with soft muddy banks for water voles, to nest and burrow in. Straightening rivers and concreting the banks into canals has helped shipping while draining farmland has facilitated agricultural production. Since 1945 we have lost 75% of our reed bed, 60% of our grazing marsh or wet grassland, 94% of lowland raised bog and wildlife has suffered. Approximately 42% of the SSSI site network is currently in unfavourable condition, with 29% of fen, marsh and swamp, and 50% of rivers and streams in that category. Most of England’s watercourses (over 60%) have heavily modified banks while over 150 SSSIs may be affected by water abstraction licenses.

We have pushed water off our farmland and we have taken it into our cities to feed us.

This is a shame for humans too because wet areas are fantastically good at helping to reduce flood damage by acting as huge out-of-town sponges. The River Wye between Erwood and Belmont reduces discharge by 45%, providing flood protection for the downstream city of Hereford. Wetlands can also treat sewage and remove pollutants in a wildlife friendly way. When water falls on a field of wheat it picks up chemicals like fertilisers and herbicides, and runs off quickly through human dug drainage ditches, into rivers. When rain falls on a wetland it stays put, and much of it passes from the roots, through the plant and is eventually evaporated from the leaves. Plants absorb chemicals and act as pollution filters. Water leaving a wetland back into the water cycle is cleaner than when it arrived. That leaving our fields is usually dirtier. These environmental services are worth millions to the UK economy, but we have squandered this resource.

Eutrophication: Too much of a good thing

Another major harm for watercourses is pollution: car cleaning fluids, dog faeces, garden fertilisers, run into waterways intercepted by nought. These can act as toxins directly or in the case of nitrogen and phosphorous set off a damaging ecological chain reaction. Ninety thousand tonnes of phosphorous and 1.2 million tonnes of nitrogen are applied to UK farmland each year as fertilisers. These are in waterways like junk food for opportunist plants. Human sewage and detergent are also major contributors and animals grazing in British fields pee out 45million tonnes. Through the water cycle, N and P are washed into waterways, running through the soil or picked up and carried in rain.

In water, the fertilisers have the same effect as on crops causing some water plants to grow very fast. When the algal cells die off, they decompose, reducing oxygen content and causing stagnation and death, a process known as eutrophication. Only a few plants prosper under such conditions. Algal blooms also cause a dark green shadow to fall over the lower parts of the lake or river or pond preventing growth of other plants.

Ruth David, RSPB Water Policy Officer, opened my eyes to the rushy, green undergrowth where the roach swim. The RSPB water team were out in force to plant some reeds on Otmoor, a new jewel in the crown reserve for the RSPB in Oxfordshire. Ruth showed me the River Ray, its water murky, a green scum-like alga spread over its surface, the river bed totally obscured.

‘Suddenly he came to the edge of a river – never in his life had he seen one before. All was a-shake and a-shiver, gleaming and sparkling. The Mole was enchanted.’ Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows.

The Ray is not what a river should look like, this is not what Mole saw that day. Inside Otmoor just a few hundred yards from the Ray, pools of water (WHAT DO YOU WANT TO CALL THEM?) dug by the RSPB to recreate wet Otmoor, swarm with life. This is more like it. Damsel-flys as blue as 80’s eyeshadow, make love on the wing, coupled in their short sweet courtship over the shining water. After they mate they die, but what a way to go. Perch stripe about like tropical fish in sparkling water and swans are swans. Rolls of WHAT SPECIES of water weed wind themselves upwards 3 feet from the bed to the surface and every inch of them is visible. This is more like it.

Ruth plucks a green alga from the edge and explains how the tiny capsules along its fronds are mini – hoovers which suck up micro – invertebrates. (NAME This plant) has developed this elaborate way of accessing nutrients because it evolved in a nutrient-poor habitat. Its special-ness is dependent on absence of chemical fertilisers like phosphates. When nutrients are poured into its environment from our world, plants better adapted for fertile waters out compete it.

These two water bodies are right next to each other but supplied from completely different sources. The RSPB have separated Otmoor from the Ray because its water is unclean.

A bunda (CHECK), a humped grass bank built by farmers long ago to keep water out of Otmoor, now ensures the clean and dirty waters do not mix. The water inside Otmoor is collected rainwater. Large reservoirs hold enough to keep it wet and wild throughout the summer. Pumps move water around the 260 hectare reserve. The water in the Ray is running through surrounding areas, picking up human pollution, so it is kept out. It is a strange and artificial state of affairs. The wardens might be compared to aquarists maintaining a perfect ‘aquarium for bird’ separate from the outside world.

Neil Lamberton, warden, has a vision of Otmoor as it used to be, when 200 years ago, the Ray would burst its banks spreading clean, pre-industrial, life-giving water over the surrounding farm land, a clarion call for lapwings and snipe, curlew and redshank to fly down and nest feed in the boggy pasture. Until the water outside Otmoor is clean, it will have to remain an enclave, a harbour from the ‘real world’. Indeed, these key birds-in-decline are now found almost exclusively (only?) on nature reserves. Only one sixth of our wet grassland is of good enough quality to support breeding waders. Snipe have been lost from 60% and redshank from 40% of areas they once bred.

Water Framework Directive: Light on the surface of the water

‘Water is not a commercial product like any other, but rather a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.’ Water Framework Directive. This new piece of legislation has been hailed by Kirsty Lewin, Head of Water Policy at the RSPB, as ‘one of the most innovative and visionary pieces of environmental legislation ever to emerge from the European Union’. In essence it sets new standards for water quality, insists that hazardous chemicals are controlled, and demands that River Basin Management Plans be produced by 2009. The directive is an example of joined-up thinking embracing flood defence, drinking water quality, and wildlife habitats as part of the same package. With the protective legislation in place, river basins are expected to contain the kind of wildlife synonymous with low human impact.

‘Swimming ….he swam and swam, tiring himself passing the healthful healing water through his gills, emptying himself in his solitude of the bitterness of living.’ Iris Murdoch, The Philosopher’s Pupil.

The day I started to write this article I woke up to a dead goldfish. In my goldfish tub, some imbalance in water chemicals had tipped the balance for this little friend. There are many potential pollutants of water and many ways to test how clean water is. Historically we have relied on chemical measurements, including The River Quality Objectives which check out dissolved oxygen, total ammonia, un-ionised ammonia, copper and zinc, hardness, and pH range and centre on ensuring rivers support fish. Fish are good indicators of how clean water is, even goldfish in ponds. Ensuring good quality water for fish is important for the fish themselves and because more than a million people enjoy angling. One coarse fisherman I met had spent so many hours under the sun his nose was the colour of Victoria plum and his eyes like stones fixed on the sparkling water. Kingfishers and heron too need clean water to catch fish with their spear like bills.

The Environment Agency recognised that its all very well having clean water but only if it contains living creatures. They developed a system of bio-indicators, measuring macro-invertebrates (including big insect larvae like dragonfly nymphs). The new Water Framework Directive goes far beyond this, to establish a standard for each water way in Europe and measuring its progress by looking at lots of different life forms – plants, inverts and birds and chemical measures. While under current systems 95% of our rivers classify as ‘good’, under the directive, 55% of our rivers may fail to pass the test and more will be done to improve them. This means that all surface and ground waters will be maintained at, or restored to ‘good status’ by 2015. The framework disallows any deterioration of waterways, and protects underground water, which Kirsty and Ruth are very excited about.

If water companies work in innovative and imaginative ways with conservationists and farmers, then many water problems are easily soluble. But for now this is all conjecture. Legislation is just words on pages. The Water team at the Lodge are keen that when the UK implements the Water Framework Directive it does so with gusto and enthusiasm, showing real commitment to the ecological objectives at its heart. In doing so, we may answer Hopkins plea: ‘Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.’

Five ways to save the water wildlife in your house:

1. Shower don’t bathe

2. Boil the right amount of water in your kettle

3. Use phosphate-free detergents

4. PS – Never ever release your goldfish into the wild. They do untold damage, not least munching native amphibians.