Rivulet 4: We’re now trying to change rivers back to how they were (as much as possible)

Rivulet 4. Fourth in a series of snippets on things we learnt by walking from one end of a river to the other.

In yesterday’s post I talked a bit about how much humans have altered UK rivers. By doing this we’ve given ourselves a load of headaches. In places we’ve made flooding more likely (as there’s now less ‘give’ in the system). We’ve messed up the ecology, reduced the fish populations (and therefore the predators like herons or otters who feed on them). We’ve given ourselves river furniture (like locks and weirs) that needs maintaining and freeing from silt. We’ve reduced the natural fertilising of farmland by silt-heavy floodwaters. We’ve built unsuitable houses on floodplains.

There are now a bunch of people working on rivers for the Environment Agency whose job is to try to put rivers back to how they were before we messed with them. A lot of time, effort and money is going into returning rivers to their ‘natural’ state. Which casts quite an ironic light on what we mean by ‘natural’, when you think about it…

But of course it’s not really possible to go back in time (we can’t knock down whole areas of housing for a start), so they have to make choices about what aspect they improve. Is it the ecology? The flood resilience? The leisure access?

Often these are in tension. A river full of debris like shopping trolleys doesn’t look that nice, but it’s a happy playground for fish, with plenty of places for small fish to hang out without getting eaten. You can say the fish are what’s important, and dismiss aesthetics. But if it looks rubbish, then people don’t use the river. And if people aren’t using the river for leisure – dog walking, boating, angling – then no-one cares about the river. And if no-one cares about the river, then who thinks EA funding is important enough to protect? And without funding, how can they improve the rivers?

The tensions are even more subtle than leisure vs ecology. For example, which leisure use do we promote? The anglers don’t like canoeists, because they disturb the fish. The dog walkers don’t like the anglers because they have to watch out for them casting their lines. Things you do to improve the river for one set of leisure users don’t necessarily suit another set of leisure users.

We hadn’t realised organisations dealing with rivers had so many interests to balance. I guess most people don’t. Most of us just get on with our lives and concerns, don’t we? Even if we going walking by rivers, we think of them as just being there.

Walking from one end of a river and finding out all this stuff has made me want to tell people about rivers a lot. And that it’s all a bit more complicated than they think. It’s made me worry about the Water Framework Directive. And it’s made me wonder how many other things I know nothing about are actually completely fascinating.

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