Water is often undervalued by civil society, yet our very existence is dependent on a continuous supply of fresh water. Human activities linked to population growth, food production, industrialisation and land use changes have damaged our natural waters. If rivers could talk, what story would they tell and how would they view humans and our actions?
This is the story told from a rivers’ perspective. If we are to understand what is happening in rivers we must try and appreciate the journey from source to sea. It is much more than a journey, it is an adventure fraught with perils and dangers, whilst also full of the wonder and beauty of nature.
This is the story of a tributary river of the mighty Ulster Blackwater.
I am a tributary of the Ulster Blackwater that drains a catchment area of 60 square kilometres. I once enjoyed a healthy status to rival any river in Ireland, but not anymore, largely as a result of damage caused by human activities. My source is an upland area covered by blanket bogs and forests. It is a magical place, from where I flow through a valley of marginal land to a lowland area of fertile pastures and rural settlements. A network of ditches, drains, streams, wetlands and lakes in the surrounding landscape connect to my main river channel; this area I call my Catchment.
One of my lakes supplies drinking water to a nearby town and the numerous homes, businesses and farms in between. Many people enjoy walking along my river banks and lakesides. Activities like swimming, canoeing and kayaking all happen in my waters and anglers, birdwatchers, and huntsmen all benefit from the wildlife I support. My groundwater supplies many wells and is even bottled and sold, who would have thought! I am given the unenviable task of dealing with effluent discharge from wastewater treatment plants. You would think I would be highly valued for all these services I provide – but sadly this is not the case.
In the 1970’s, when biologists first began to check the health of Ireland’s rivers I was in a very healthy state with good water quality along my entire length, however, within a few years my water quality rapidly deteriorated due to the discharge of human sewage from an expanding village. Later a sewage treatment plant was built reducing the pollution load discharged.
In the mid 80’s large stretches of my river bed were removed to deepen my channel as part of a major arterial drainage scheme. This destroyed natural wildlife habitat and fish spawning grounds and resulted in severe siltation downstream in my lower reaches. A major slurry spill from a farm followed in the late 80’s – coating my river bed with organic material, depleting oxygen levels and causing a fish kill for up to 3kms downstream of the source.
My middle reaches did not escape damage, a discharge of silt and sand from a quarry discoloured my waters downstream followed by a poisoning incident in the 90’s when the reckless disposal of a toxic pesticide killed off all life, everything, along a 5 kilometre stretch and it took several years for sensitive aquatic life to return and water quality to recover.
In the 90s, a new industry came to my catchment which produced lots of organic waste. Thousands of tonnes were dumped at various locations in my wetlands and marginal lands resulting in the leaching of contaminants into my waters. Clusters of houses sprang up with septic tanks incorrectly installed on poorly draining soils resulting in further contamination. My lakes did not escape either, pollution of the feeder stream caused over enrichment with nutrients and some severe algal blooms. This affected the drinking water supply to the local town and also affected a popular bathing area.
My upper reaches remained in pristine condition until the mid-90’s, however an excavation machine removed gravel from my river bed and disturbed the iron pan, a ring feeder was located on my river bank and illegal dumping of liquid waste took place all contributing to a loss of sensitive aquatic species.
There are many more pollution events that I have suffered over the past 40 years, some from poor farming practices, others from contaminated runoff from hard surfaces, faulty septic tanks, chemicals and oils, road drainage and siltation caused by construction and forestry works. These have all impacted negatively on the health of my waters and the wildlife they support.
The good news is that today I am in recovery; my upper and middle reaches are healthy again and my excessive phosphorus levels are lowering. Farmers have availed of farm grants to improve slurry management and REPS, GLAS and other schemes have promoted better nutrient management and fencing along watercourses. The village sewage treatment plant now operates under a licence and septic tank standards have improved. The status of my lake water body will, however, take longer to recover fully as nutrients have accumulated in my lake sediments.
My lower reaches remain unhealthy but today there is a new focus on catchment management, and public bodies, community groups and anglers are interested in restoring my waters to healthy status. A River Trust has formed and following a survey they recommend reconstruction works on weirs, river bank stabilisation works, rehabilitation of spawning and nursery areas, and improvements to natural vegetation along my river corridor. This work is costly and awaits a funding source. One day, I could be a fully healthy river providing a cleaner source for water supply, safer bathing and recreational areas and healthy populations of otter, dippers, kingfishers, mayfly and trout. With care from my catchment community, one day even the Salmon might return.
Source – EPA Catchments