Will Brexit break down or expand the new approaches that have been improving our rivers?

4725930223_ff9367f2fa_b - CopyThis post is by Richard Benwell, head of government affairs at WWT.

Every stretch of river has its own character. Here are a few of the personalities I’ve got to know over the years:

  • Beverley Brook – small, beautiful, prone to outbursts; a Richmond river with a film star name
  • Byron’s Pool – tranquil, romantic, deep and surrounded by wildlife (but no bears)
  • Thames at Lechlade – the first point where Old Father Thames gives a hint of his power
  • The Severn Estuary – the last point of the UK’s longest river; a famous bore

Each has its own charms and needs. It’s this diversity that can help to inspire communities to love and protect their rivers and it’s the reason why every portion of every river needs to be given its own care. The attention that will calm the bursting banks of Beverley Brook might be a drop in the ocean elsewhere.

A thousand small abuses are spoiling our rivers
Unfortunately, English rivers and streams remain in poor state. Only one in five are in good ecological condition. Even globally important wonders like our chalk streams are suffering; three quarters fail to meet a good ecological standard.

The explanation is a classic case of the difficulties of environmental management. Rarely are rivers spoiled by a single polluter. Instead, they are victim to a thousand small abuses: diffuse agricultural pollution from pesticides, slurry and fertilisers, littering or over abstraction. No one wants to kill a river; but few are willing to compromise their own activities to help save one.

The European Union has given us a structure for turning things round. Living up to the idea of ‘subsidiarity’—everything happening at the right level—the EU agreed the Water Framework Directive 2000, which set top level targets for water quality, but required bottom up planning to achieve them.

The government’s implementation of the Water Framework Directive is just beginning to work. The River Basin Management Plans are starting to create a level of strategic catchment planning that was long missing in the UK. More importantly, perhaps, the directive has prompted the development of the catchment based approach (CaBA).

How the catchment based approach is working
CaBA is a way of bringing together the people, communities and businesses with a stake in how water is managed. Water companies sit alongside farmers, families and NGOs to decide how they can work together to overcome local challenges. The results are impressive; despite having no real access to funding, CaBAs across the country are changing behaviour and promoting investments that can have great environmental and economic rewards, with some benefit to cost ratios reckoned to be up to 17:1.

WWT has been particularly involved with urban CaBA groups, helping to cut through the minefields of planning and co-ordination in cities to encourage people to come up with their own ways of managing water better. The SuDS for Schools project has been a delight, helping safeguard the Pymmes Brook catchment from flooding, while involving the next generation in the creation of sustainable drainage systems, which bring a blast of green and blue to the smoggy grey of some London learning environments.

The Greener UK Brexit Risk Tracker illustrates the dangers involved with leaving the EU, across a range of environmental areas. For the water environment, the biggest risk may be a setback in this move toward co-operative, community focused, catchment based collaboration.

Local collaboration opening up opportunities
Of course, for every risk there is an opportunity. The catchment based approach demonstrates the kind of regionally appropriate planning that could improve the UK’s environment, and not just for water. All kinds of environmental issues would benefit from a regional planning approach that draws on local expertise and smart data driven techniques to plan for the most economically and ecologically efficient choices. Ideally, local collaboration would be linked to ecological opportunity mapping and new markets, and supported by public money as well as directing private investment. A catchment based approach could refocus agricultural subsidies as well as major infrastructure spending.

From mysterious peatlands, to tumultuous coastlines, or quiet city streams, every UK catchment has its own character. With catchment collaboration, local planning and intelligent investment, we can cater to every personality. There are lots of different ways it could be done: catchment co-ordinators (WWT), catchment system operators (Dieter Helm), new markets for nature (Green Alliance and National Trust), ecological network mapping (Wildlife Trusts), all of these could reinforce and take forward the catchment approach.

So, will Brexit mean the disintegration of the catchment based approaches that are finally beginning to function? Or will Defra use the opportunity to underpin national objectives with properly funded catchment collaboration?

Keep an eye on the Risk Tracker to find out.

@RSBenwell

[Image: River Severn HDR sky, courtesy of LHG Creative Photography from Flickr Creative Commons]

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