River Trust Conference

Last month I attended the River Trust Autumn Conference in Bristol, right on the River Avon. The conference took place at a waterside café, most appropriate to the topic of the day. Over 150 delegates attended from trusts, statutory agencies, academia, and consultancies, providing a variety of perspectives. The theme centred around the Challenges of the 25 Year Plan, with a keynote speaker followed by 4 sessions looking at various aspects of river management.

Arlin Rickard, The Rivers Trust CEO opened the conference by welcoming keynote speaker Feargal Sharkey, Chairman of the Amwell Magna Fishery. Feargal held the attention of the audience as he highlighted the lack of WFD standards reached throughout the last 2 decades, and spoke about his local River Lea in Hertfordshire. He stressed how the environment now demands we review, and use all our power to restore rivers to sustainable flows, and let them flow.

Starting the first session, Alistair Maltby from the Rivers Trust showed a short film on perspectives of how we can improve rivers to encourage natural flowing streams. This was followed by Laurence Couldrick from the Westcountry Rivers Trust, giving his presentation on Natural Capital, identifying a number of assets including built assets such as farm buildings and machinery; natural assets, habitat quality and connectivity; and farmed assets such as the condition of soil. Laurence looked at how Natural Capital can be incorporated into practical management at a catchment scale, with securitisation of benefits to farmers, and minimising costs and risks through protecting these assets.
The second session begun with Mike Morris from Severn Rivers Trust, presenting on the Unlocking the Severn Project, which utilised the local community to raise awareness. Mike mentioned one example where a shad structure was built and demonstrated in Worcester for the community to enjoy, whilst raising awareness and engaging local support in the project, with 3,000 people involved on the day. This highlights the importance of stakeholders throughout the development of a project. Jack Spees from Ribble Rivers Trust then presented an interactive demonstration about regulation permits and the barriers faced when trying to apply for permits and licences including for impoundments, abstraction and environmental permits. These sketches engaged the audience and really highlighted the barriers and terminology used in the process of permit applications. Barry Bendall from the Rivers Trust finished this session before lunch, with his presentation on water resources, highlighting how over-abstracted catchments damage the environment, and there is a key need to focus on catchments, priority catchments and business planning for water resources management.
Following a networking lunch where I had the opportunity to meet new people and reconnect with contacts, we went into the third session. Catherine Wright from the Environment Agency introduced each presentation, starting with a video presentation from Professor Dieter Helm CBE, on the role of Rivers Trusts in the 25 Year Plan, and Natural Capital. Matthew Pitts from local water company Bristol Water spoke next, identifying the River Chew as a long term opportunity for multiple benefit for flood risk and ecology. Vikki Salas from West Cumbria Rivers Trust, then presented on the Cumbria Strategic Flood Partnership which was set up following Storm Desmond in 2015. This highlighted the importance of integrating flood management into the Catchment Based Approach and Catchment Partnerships. Before a final tea break, Kevin Austin from the Environment Agency spoke about the need for resilient catchments, greater natural functionality, and a broad range of ecosystem services, to reach the aims for rivers within the 25 Year Plan. He suggested the biggest strategic challenges and obstacles to be morphology, physical barriers and fine sediment from agriculture. Opportunities for enhancement however include nature based approaches, giving rivers room to adjust, integrating land and water management, letting rivers do the work, and keeping soil on land. He finally stressed the importance of collaboration to reach these aims.
Session 4 started with Alex Adam, Water Stewardship Manager at the Rivers Trust, stressing how water is the currency of Natural Capital, and how there is a need to make it easier for businesses to work within catchment areas. We then heard from a completely different perspective – Andy Griffiths from Nestlé, who mentioned the importance of water, soil, biodiversity and habitat, and sustainable productivity to drive business values from healthy landscapes. 

Brett Day and Nathan Owen from the University of Exeter then wrapped up the presentations with their demonstration of the new and upcoming Natural Environmental Valuation Online (NEVO). This is a map based online tool, to be released in January 2019 Open Access. The tool includes ecosystem services information shared for policy makers, business owners, decision makers, all integrated to help value the natural environment. The tool has been set up so many input values can be altered including economic values, and spatial and temporal variation. This tool is interactive, intuitive and immediate. The model integration allows values to be changed in line with those things which impact decision making including climate, prices, policies, economy and land use. The tool illustrates the relationship between land use and water, and the spatial relationship between adjacent and downstream sub basins. The panel, made up of speakers from session 4 then fielded a few final questions before the closing comments. One that particularly stuck in my mind was whether Natural Capital is becoming a distraction from actually getting things done on the ground. This was however defended by the uncertainty still involved in quantifying and evaluating Natural Capital, and how using tools to analyse data is worth a shot if it elucidates this uncertainty in any way.

The sessions provided presentations from a range of organisations and perspectives. The audience was given the chance to ask questions and query the issues raised, with thought provoking discussion. Thank you to everyone at the Rivers Trust who was involved in organising this conference. Great work!


Outputs available to download here

Feargal Sharkey’s mission to save our chalk streams



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