By Kate Riley, volunteer water tester at Saint Catherine’s swimming spot
Poor water quality in UK rivers has hit the headlines in the past few months leading many to wonder what they can do to help. On Saturday, January 28th, 2023 more than 50 volunteers turned up at ZERO in Guildford hoping to become part of a wider effort to solve what can seem a very complex problem. Some are wild swimming enthusiasts, others keen paddleboarders, rowers, or kayakers but all are interested in the health of our beautiful River Wey!
Working collaboratively with the River Wey Trust, ZERO, and smaller environmental groups along the River Wey, Kat Kavanagh, founder of Water Rangers, explained how volunteers could become 'citizen scientists' by testing their local waters. Water Rangers, a not-for-profit social enterprise, are politically neutral. The organization is focused on filling water data gaps and finding solutions to water quality issues. They regularly test water chemistry, monitoring parameters like nitrates and phosphates in the area. They also engage in kick testing (more on this later) and qualitative monitoring.
Kat is keen to work collaboratively with as many groups as possible, as well as bigger agencies such as the Environment Agency, water companies, and local authorities. Seasoned volunteers led new joiners through 5 processes involved in collecting water data. They use freshwater testkits, designed and provided by Kat from her work in Canada and adapted for the River Wey. The kits are easy to use, affordable, and scientifically proven for accuracy.
The 5 processes involve:
Ensuring safety while collecting samples
Closely observing the river and surroundings
Testing conductivity, which can indicate that pollution has entered the river, nitrates and phosphates, as well as temperature, pH, alkalinity, and hardness.
Volunteers at 5 stations explained the testing protocol
Some were able to put the theory into practice the very next day, testing various points on the Wey, including close to the Slyfield Sewage Treatment works, Shalford Mill, Liphook, and St Catherine’s near Ferry Lane.
Next day training sessions in the field
The long-term goal is to achieve healthy river status for the River Wey. The event’s first speaker, Alex Adam, from the Rivers Trust, emphasized that we need to think about our entire catchment as we look for solutions.
Collected data is stored on the Water Rangers site and ZERO has also contributed funding to partner up with Fresh Water Watch, meaning that all results are stored on open source platforms and can be accessed by scientists and analysts anywhere in the world.
The testing data is showing interesting information and leading to more questions. One such result is a spike in conductivity near Farnham. Kat met the South East Rivers Trust this week near Bentley to discuss and work out possible next steps to establish whether this is the effect of higher mineral content in chalk streams or potentially caused by pollution.
Another part of the scheme involves kick-testing for the presence or, more importantly, the absence of freshwater invertebrates that indicate whether or not a river is healthy. There are also plans to test for E.coli – of concern for anyone thinking of putting their head beneath the surface of the Wey!
A big thank you to ZERO for hosting this event, Alistair Young from the River Wey Trust for data analysis, Angus, James, Sarah, and Allan, for sharing their interesting insights at their local locations, and to all the other volunteers who ran stations and trained new volunteers!