Rivers Trust Conference

The last 2 days I have attended the online Rivers Trust Conference – ‘Water at the heart of climate resilience’. Loads of interesting information was shared, and I’ve tried to collate a summary of all the panel discussion sessions, and projects and schemes which were presented!

Day 1:

Laurence Couldrick (Westcounty Rivers Trust) opened the conference mentioning how we are all aware of the changing climate and it’s impacts on the environment such as warmer temperatures, rising sea levels, and more frequent extreme events of rainfall and hotter weather spells.

Catchment characteristics have changed including changing drainage patterns, more compaction of soils and more input of nitrates. Due to this, water doesn’t infiltrate as frequently or quickly, and runs off the land. This means the water is not available locally to top up basewater levels, impacting the watercourse at a catchment-scale.

We are also experiencing reduced catchment and community resilience, including pollution events, fish kills, flooding locally and sediment/soil input causing us to dredge our rivers more frequently.

When we think about indicators and impact we should think about what species suffer, and what this indicates in terms of environmental condition. The eel is a remarkable species in terms of what activities it carries out throughout growth to its adult stage. It can be impacted by changes such as changing gulf stream patterns which alter the larval stage and recruitment in the catchment; sea level habitat squeeze which impacts availability of suitable habitat; changes in river flow and base levels; reduced and degraded habitat; barriers to migration both for those incoming to feed and moving downstream to feed; pollution of river water; changes in elver trading (i.e. Brexit and altering trade deals); and potential encouragement of illegal trading.

Laurence outlined 2 main questions to consider throughout the conference:

  1. How do we increase the impact of our work beyond the project?
  2. How do we continue to fund cross border collaboration?

My initial thoughts were the importance of communicating outcomes/results, sharing lessons learnt, and advocating best-practice. We should continue to encourage joined up collaboration of river restoration projects, working at catchment scale.

The first speaker of the session was Diego Intrigliolo, Spanish National Research Council. Diego presented on the Triple-C project which focuses on capitalising climate change projects in risk management for improved resilience. Climate change is impacting our ecosystems and societies. Practices to adapt to climate change effects are required with special focus on Nature-based Solutions (NbS).

The Triple-C Project focuses on capitalising on successful EU projects which aim to prevent and manage risks deriving from climate change. It aims to provide future EU programmes with guidelines and recommendations to implement and support projects. 254 EU projects have been screened and studied, to extract a catalogue for good practices, replicability of knowledge transfer, policy implications and social dimensions. There is a Triple-C Platform where all project information is logged.

The first Keynote presentation was from Tony Juniper, Chair of Natural England. Tony stressed how fundamentally, the accumulation of carbon in our atmosphere has a critical impact on our Earth. Less carbon is being locked in the ground and in ecosystems, contributing to the rising average temperature of our planet. This has a knock on effect of ecosystem damage, impacting the water and carbon cycles. Changes in vegetation such as deforestation can contribute to drought and climate change with tonnes of carbon released into the atmosphere.

Tony also mentioned how the degradation of peatlands in Britain is a major priority for Natural England. These systems are highly degraded, shedding carbon into the atmosphere. Restoration of ecosystems such as coasts, wetlands and peatlands can help us build resilience, and learn to withstand and recover from ‘shocks’. Nature-based solutions (NbS) can help rebuild the health of ecosystems, as well as improve resilience to help limit the initial impacts of detrimental events. We need more, larger, better quality natural areas, connected to each other in synergy. For example, the establishment of more riparian woodlands and re-naturalising of river valleys can bring multiple benefits - carbon capture, habitat and hydrology, recreation and community access.

Nature doesn’t divide over counties or national boundaries. We need to work more with the flow of nature and fundamentals of how our environment works. We need to line up all the pieces of the puzzle to identify how we can build towards more resilient water resources in the context of climate change volatility.


Protecting water resources

Following the keynote, three talks were given on EU projects looking at issue of climate change resilience and protecting water resources.

Jan Staes, Senior Researcher at University of Antwerp presented on landscape scale actions to protect raw water sources. The main objective is to build resilience against drought by enhancing water infiltration and retention capacity of landscapes in regions of strategic importance for drinking water production.

With wetter winters and much drier summmer months, weather patterns are expected to become more erratic. During the dry season we consume more water while there is less replenishment. Groundwater levels are critically flow and watercourses have barely any baseflow. Contrastingly there will be a lot of critisim if water saving measures are implemetned unnecesarily. There is a looming conflict between water provision and biodiversity.

The only feasible and cost effective solution is to increase recharge. Then we will have a better chance of surving dry periods, but we need to change how we monitor the water system. Over many centuries landscapes have been designed to drain water more quickly, driving the critical impacts of floods and droughts. Options to restore landscapes include soil management practices, increasing water storage in landscape depressions, and temporary wetland creation.

Secondly, Jessie Leach, Project Officer for the Rivers Trust and Norfolk Rivers Trust, presented on the ‘Water for Tomorrow’ project. This drought-related project focuses on water deficits and how they are shared across agriculture, water companies, public water supply, industries, and the environment. The current frameworks are insufficient to address the demand and supply mismatch, and we face uncertainties and challenges with climate change and population growth.

Jessie offered a solution to this, involving developing new adaptation strategies to facilitate sustainable management of water resources. We need improved planning to address shared water deficiencies, and should adapt our way of working using innovative tools and processes. This project is piloted in East Anglia, England, as well as catchments in France. The outcomes hope to provide improved insight, visibility and decision making about shared water resources use, stressing the importance of collaboration. This is a brilliant opportunity to share knowledge between England and France, learn more about government structures, sharing tools and data processes and seeing how this helps us make decisions collaboratively.

The third speaker of this session on protecting water resources was Lisa Stewart, Project Officer at Rivers Trust in Ireland. Lisa presented on the ‘Source to tap’ project, linking Ireland and Northern Ireland. This cross-border project aims to protect and improve the rivers and lakes within the Derg and Erne catchments. This involves exploring sustainable, cost effective measures to reduce pollution in shared catchments, to secure safe drinking water sources and contribute to improvements in cross border raw water quality.

The project includes a citizen science water quality monitoring programme to encourage local community engagement. There is also an education programme involving visiting schools to spread awareness of the water cycle, working with community groups to share the message of the project, and visiting farmers to demonstrate the benefits of sustainable alternatives such as fertilisers. A pilot Land Incentive Scheme (LIS) was also trialled along the River Derg aiming to help farmers make small changes to their practices to make farms more sustainable and help water resources. This includes reducing flow across farmland, protection of watercourse from stock, peatland management and other farmland innovations suggested by the land owner. Lisa shared how over 200 farms in the pilot catchments had been involved, identifying over 800 issues to be resolved.

Holding back water

The second session of Day 1 was another 4 presentations on initiatives to store water.

Stephen Dury, Senior Officer for Water and Environment at Somerset County Council presented on the Climate resilient community based catchment planning and management (Triple C) Interreg Project. Stephen stressed how the complex nature of climate change and its associated water related effects require a catchment based collaborative approach.

This project aims to develop large-scale climate-resilient strategies for land and water management. The pilot catchment stretch across Europe, and implement techniques such as sediment traps and fences to reduce sediment loss and flood risk locally whilst improving water quality. In Devon they have been investigating how wetlands can help benefit flood risk reduction efforts and water storage. In Belgium, leaky ponds have been created with capacity of 30,000m3. In Holland, they are working towards slowing water runoff in arable fields. In Somerset, leaky bunds and dams have been installed to retain water. This is part of the wider Hills to Levels project to slow the flow and reduce flooding and soil erosion, which won the 2018 UK River Prize.

Secondly, Tom Smart, Natural England presented the Natural Course Ecological Network Tool (Cheshire to South Lancashire). This 10-year EU LIFE funded project was a collaboration between Environment Agency, Natural England, United Utilites and Rivers Trust. The project aimed to improve the water environment, and provide a tool to map ecological networks to lowland woodland habitats. This aimed to identify where there were opportunities to improve NbS and flood risk reduction.

Species are likely to ‘range-shift’ in response to climate change. We need to understand where the existing habitat networks are likely to facilitate this and improve them. We need to determine where the networks should and could be for species trying to move across the landscape. We should consider where there are suitable conditions and where we could make them bigger/enhance them. Multiple modelling approaches were used to answer these queries on where species would/should/could disperse across the landscape.

As well as this, Tom mentioned the multiple benefits for biodiversity, WFD and flood risk mitigation. Using WFD data, the project considered where lowland wetland restoration could also improve water pollution or where woodland could also be added. This allows the project to target areas for rewetting, blue-green infrastrusure, SuDs schemes or restoration and enhancement.

Tom also mentioned the model limitations. It only defines zones to consider. A model is only ever as reliable as the input data, so ground truth is vital. Distinct ‘zones’ are unlike real world ecology which will work along gradients rather than sharp boundaries. However, this output can help inform decision making.

The third speaker of this session was Barry Bendall from Rivers Trust. Barry presented the Water Co-Governance for sustainable ecosystems (WaterCoG) project focusing on governance in water management. There is a disconnect between top-down targets and mechanisms for bottom-up community led action.

A common challenge is enabling the right governance frameworks for effective implementation. This project aimed to generate ‘long-term sustainable management of North Sea ecosystems’, involving 9 partners from 5 countries including Sweden, Denmark, Netherlands, and Germany. Working with stakeholders, the project aims to develop a shared understanding of groundwater resources, and bridge the gaps in understanding of climate adaptation. Barry stressed some key tips including enabling citizen action, access to data and knowledge, identifying the win-wins, reviewing and adapting reguarly, and ensuring you find time to celebrate results

The final speaker of this session was Mike Müller-Petke, Head of the Geoelectric and Electromagnetic Department at Leibniz University in Hannover. Mike presented on the TOPSOIL project, the influence of geology on the landscape, and the connecton between soil and groundwater. This was an extensitve collaboration project with 24 partners operating over 16 pilot sites in the North Sea region (including the UK, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and Germany).

There are 5 main challenges of topsoil – flooding; saltwater intrusion; the need for a groundwater buffer to store water in periods of excess rainfall (resilience to low rainfall); better knowledge on soil conditions; and capacity to break down nutrients and pollutants in the uppermost layers of the ground. Mike talked about how we can tackle these challenges by developing tools to map and model the topsoil layer, and implementing solutions at field scale.

As well as this, Mike stressed how we can add value from transnational and cross sectoral cooperation. It’s important to learn from each others experiences and different backgrounds, combining knowledge to gain a better solution to our shared problems.


Following these captivating presentations, the presenters were asked a couple of questions from the audience.

Do governments understand NbS?

Governments are increasingly getting on board, spreading the message and stressing the importance of working with natural processes, so we are moving in the right direction, although there are a couple barriers to implementation. From decades of poor management (hard engineering), there is an appetite to move to more NbS but there are still barriers on regulatory and institutional side. There is a key role for NGOs to be progressive in advocacy work.

Why do we need to take land out of agricultural production in order to encourage NFM?

Depends what we mean by productive management. We need appropriate management which is resilient, not just dependent on expensive heavily engineered protection.


Day 2:

Keynote speaker Liv Garfield, Chief Executive of Severn Trent kicked off the 2nd day of the Conference mentioning how rivers play a role in all our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic has raised the importance of rivers and the huge recreational benefits. Riverscapes should be central to the future of every situation.

Only 14% of rivers in the UK are achieving good status. Liv pointed out that the main cause is agriculture and we need to work actively to try and alleviate this. She mentioned how she works with farmers to encourage use of less harmful pesticides and location of chemical stores.

The pandemic has hit us all in different ways, but we now have the opportunity for green recovery – grow back better and greener. NbS are a massive opportunity for nature recovery in the future. We should encourage companies to make commitments towards carbon neutrality, as this will have the knock on effect of more investment in biodiversity and NbS.

The last 12 months have seen lower carbon emissions and nature benefits. Liv outlined how Severn Trent plan on playing their part in growing back greener through a Green Recovery scheme, which will create jobs in the environment sector as well!

  • 2 stretches of river designated for bathing quality, attracting a destination for tourism (Ludlow and River Avon)
  • Treat more drinking water for the long term in a carbon neutral manner
  • Properly considered SuDS for urban drainage – incentivise local community to make their driveways permeable and have water butts, as well as making streets greener

Liv finished by mentioning how the Covid-19 pandemic has provided an opportunity to think about investment in a different way. We need to think about how we can influence government and peoples behaviours. Liv’s thought-provoking presentation was a brilliant way to start this second day of presentations and discussions.


Abundance and scarcity: climate-related water challenges

The first session of Day 2 focused on climatic water challenges. Dave Rumble & Mike Blackmore (Wessex Rivers Trust) presented the Flow Resilient Sustainable Habitat (FReSH Water) Programme. The project focuses on the Rivers Test & Itchen which currently incur flow licence restrictions to help improve resilience of rivers in times of drought. These rivers are of economic importance for game fishery and salmon spawning and there is a limited window for river restoration works to be carried out.

Mike mentioned how the River Test is a drought disaster waiting to happen! It only takes a small increase in temperature or decrease in flow for it to be an unattractive area for fish/salmonids. In its current condition the Test is an easy access site for Flyfishing. It holds a large number of domesticated stock trout, and practically guarantees catches. From some conceptual sums, the Test can be worth up to £43, 368 per km per year. If restoration were to take place, resulting in a loss of fishable areas, there would also be a loss of income.


To initiate the project, Mike & Dave wanted to gauge the interests, concerns and aspirations for the river from the local community, to ensure stakeholder engagement throughout the project. Site visits were carried out and rough restoration ideas were designed. These were finalised and shared with landowners along with a guide to techniques to give more information about what techniques would look like, and to ensure landowners felt they had sufficient input. The drawings were saved on a GIS map, showing highlighted areas, metrics and outline designs. This is a brilliant concept for stakeholder engagement and sharing design ideas with all involved parties.