The Catchment Data Explorer

One of the things I like to do on this blog is to draw out the links between the microscopic and human worlds, and also to explain how we measure the extent of human impacts on the aquatic environment, and what we can do to reverse significant negative impacts.   My professional life is largely concerned with how the evidence for these evaluations is gathered and used to arrive at decisions.  Lip service has always been paid to the importance of transparency in this process but it has not always been easy to find information about the condition of your local environment.  So a few months ago I was pleased to find a new website from the Environment Agency that makes this process a lot easier.

The Catchment Data Explorer starts with some intuitive navigation panes that let you search for your part of England, and then to locate particular streams, rivers and lakes and see how these match up to current environmental targets.   Navigating to my local river, the River Wear, and, more specifically, to the section closest to my house (“Croxdale Beck to Lumley Park Burn”), I find a table with drop-down tabs that give a brief overview of its state.    I see from this that the overall condition of the river is “moderate” and, then, by opening-up further levels, see that the various components of the ecology are all good (I’m not sure that I agree with that for the microscopic algae but that’s a story for another day) but that “physico-chemical supporting elements” are “moderate”.   Classification of rivers and lakes follows the “one out, all out” rule, so it is the lowest class that is measured that determines overall status.   In this case, opening up the physico-chemical elements levels in the table, I see that all is well, except for phosphorus, which is moderate and, therefore, determines the classification.

The home page of the Catchment Data Explorer

From here we can also download a file of “reasons for not achieving good status” in order to understand why phosphorus levels are elevated which tells us that it is waste water treatment and urban drainage that is the most likely source of phosphorus in the catchment.    Control that and, in theory, all should be well.   However, these are just two rows of 147 in a spreadsheet which deals with the lower Wear catchment and its tributaries, so the scale of overall challenge facing the Environment Agency becomes clear.    Moreover, the Wear has already had over £7M investment to install phosphorus stripping from the larger sewage works, to comply with the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, so the potential for further improvement is already limited.   Go back to the original table and look at the right hand column, which is labelled “objectives”.   The ecological target is “good by 2027”; however, if you hover the cursor over this, a box pops up telling you that this is “disproportionately expensive” and “technically infeasible”, invoking the WFD’s notorious “Get Out of Jail Free” card which lets countries bypass the need to achieve good status in certain specified situations (clause 4 paragraph 5 – “Less Stringent Objectives”).

Water body classification information from the Catchment Data Explorer for the River Wear, between Croxdale Beck and Lumley Park Burn.

All good so far.   The problems come when you start burrowing deeper into the Catchment Data Explorer and, in particular, when you download data.   There is a lot of information in Excel spreadsheets (which is great); however, it is riddled with jargon and not very well interpreted.   Then there are some apparent contradictions that are not explained. I searched for one stream that interested me, and found the overall ecological status to be moderate, despite the status of the fish being poor.  There is probably a good reason for this (perhaps there was low confidence in the data for fish, for example) but, again, it is not very well explained.

Then there are those water bodies that are, apparently, “good status” but, when you delve deeper into the Catchment Data Explorer, you find that there is no evidence to support this.   This is a surprisingly common situation, not just in the UK but across Europe.  The phrase “expert judgement” is invoked : probably meaning that someone from the local Environment Agency office went along for a look around and could not see any obvious problems.   It seems to be used, in the UK at least, mostly for smaller water bodies and is probably a pragmatic decision that limited resources can be better used elsewhere.

These are relatively minor niggles when set against the positives that the Catchment Data Explorer offers.   There is already quite a lot of information in the Help pages, and there is also a Glossary, so you should be able to work out the situation for your local water bodies with a little patience.   A struggle with terminology is, perhaps, inevitable, given the complexities of managing the environment.  We would all do well to remember that.

 

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Hilda Canter-Lund shortlist 2018

We’ve just put the shortlist for the 2018 Hilda Canter-Lund prize onto the BPS website and voting is now underway to determine the winners.   As in previous years, we had a lot of images of marine macroalgae and rather fewer of microalgae, which is a problem that I’ve tried to address in a few posts over the years (see, for example, “How to win the Hilda Canter-Lund competition (3)”.  However, the best of the micrographs were stunning and two are included on the shortlist, though they have some stiff competition.  I’ll go through the shortlisted images in alphabetical order.  In each case, I have included a thumbnail, but you can see better quality images at http://www.brphycsoc.org/Canter_Lund_2018/index.lasso.

Kristen Brown of the University of Queensland kicks off our shortlist with an image of the green alga Chlorodesmis fastigiata on top of a coral.  Like many of our shortlisted images over the years it has both aesthetic qualities and tells a story as interactions between macroalgae and coral are believed to play fundamental role in the degradation of coral reefs.    Kristen is lucky enough to have a job that lets her dive on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia; our second shortlisted photographer, by contrast, dives in rather cooler waters.   José M. Fariñas-Franco was returning from a dive off Aillwee, in the Connemara region, Ireland when he took his photograph of a floating kelp forest at high tide.  The low light gives his image a particularly atmospheric appearance.

The next two images are both by photographers who have appeared on Hilda Canter-Lund shortlists before: Karie Holterman and John Huisman.   Karie Holterman, who was last on the shortlist in 2011, uses fluorescence microscopy to show cyanobacterial (blue-green algal) filaments growing amidst a mat of benthic diatoms from the bed of a lake in California.  The chlorophyll in the diatoms fluouresces with a red colour whilst DNA in the cyanobacteria pigments has been stained with Syber Green 1 to highlight its DNA.   The result is one of those intriguing images that crops up in the competition from time to time, balancing a fine line between representation and abstraction.

John Huisman is a regular fixture on the Hilda Canter-Lund shortlist, winning in 2014.  His entry this year takes us to a coral reef on the other side of Australia to the Great Barrier Reef and shows a calcified red alga, Ganonema, growing at a depth of 12 metres.

We return to the microscopic world for our next image: a frond of cells of the diatom Licmophora found drifting in the Bay of Santander in northern Spain by Rafael Martín-Ledo of the University of Extremadura in Badajoz.   Licmophora is a diatom most often found as an epiphyte on seaweeds in the littoral zone but Rafael’s frond was free-floating, perhaps having become detached from its substratum.   Rafael is a marine biologist whose interests stray well beyond algae and his Twitter feed (@martinledo) is well worth following for the wealth of beautiful images that he posts.

And finally we have an image by another old friend of the competition, Leah Reidenbach (shortlisted in 2016).  Leah’s photograph shows the green alga Ulva along with some mussels set against a background of pearl-white sand in the Bay of Fires Conservation Area in Tasmania.   There is nothing particularly exciting about any of the components of this picture but Leah’s photograph captures these in a pleasing, semi-abstract arrangement.

You may note one conspicuous absence from the shortlist this year: Chris Carter, who won in 2013 and 2017 and was shortlisted in 2010, 2011 and 2016 has now joined myself, Juliet Brodie and David Mann on the panel of judges who compile the shortlist.  The final step will be for the BPS council to vote for the winner and that should take a couple of weeks, so keep an eye out on ALGAE-L and Twitter for an announcement before too long.

And get photographing … the 2019 competition will be starting in just 10 months time…

Environmental governance post Brexit

It is some time since I have written a post about Brexit but the time has come to re-visit one of the issues which I identified early on as a critical to UK environment policy once we have left the EU: the role of European institutions as powerful enforcers of policy (see “Who will watch the watchmen now?”).  It was a concern reflected by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and others (see “(In)competent authority”), leading to Michael Gove proposing a new environmental watchdog part to “hold the powerful to account” (see “Michael Gove has made a sensible suggestion”).   The document in which these ideas are laid out in detail, Environmental Principles and Governance after EU Exit Consultation Document, has just appeared and it is worth taking a closer look.

First point to notice is that this document applies only to England.   Responsibility for the environment was devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the 1990s; however, as the key environmental legislation has come from Europe, their activities have had a common focus until now.   The UK administrations have worked together to ensure consistent application of the Water Framework Directive, in marked contrast to some other Member States (Belgium usually sends separate “Walloon” and “Flemish” representatives to meetings, for example).   Take away the constraint of European law and the devolved administrations are free, in principle, to develop their own environmental legislation as they feel appropriate.   There are moves towards a “common framework” for the environment but, as yet, no concrete mechanisms in place.

In many ways, this consultation document encapsulates one of the biggest contradictions of the whole Brexit process: the slow, bureaucratic and barely democratic structures of the European Union are actually rather good at managing the environment and this is precisely because they override national sovereignty.   A Member State has the right to implement EU legislation as it sees fit but the European Court of Justice acts as a powerful deterrent to any that might try to sidestep their responsibilities.   Taking back control from Brussels and recognising the sovereignty of Parliament means, in effect, that DEFRA are responsible not just for developing and implementing legislation but also for scrutinising the effectiveness of that implementation.   The risk, recognised by Michael Gove (though not in these words), is a self-affirming circle of smugness.

So the consultation document makes two important suggestions: first, that a new policy statement is made in which the environmental principles that guide policy-making and legislation are set out, and second, a new independent watchdog is set up to ensure that governments adhere to these.   The environmental principles might be set out in primary legislation or in a separate policy statement.  The former would have more teeth whilst the latter would be more flexible, allowing the evolution of these principles as scientific and technical knowledge improve.

The watchdog – “a new independent and statutory body holding government to account for the environment” – sounds like a good idea except, of course, that it is funded by, and must answer to the same government that it is holding to account.   The Government, in turn, must balance “… environmental priorities with delivering economic growth and other policy priorities such as housing” (paragraph 83) and, as a result, this new regulator would be primarily advisory, and would lack enforcement mechanisms.   It would not be an insignificant force but, at the same time, it would lack teeth.   If economic growth, for example, depended on trade agreements with the USA and China, for example, will the government be prepared to sacrifice stringent domestic environmental targets?

The irony is that one of the best indicators of the UK’s performance in any area of environmental policy is a comparison with that of other countries and the EU – via the European Environmental Agency – already provides a framework for doing this.   If the rhetoric is that the UK will perform even better after we leave then EU then, it follows, the UK’s relative position in the many “league tables” that the EEA produces should improve*.   A confident Michael Gove would, therefore, ensure that his new regulator worked as closely with the EEA as possible and, importantly, produced indicators that enabled such comparisons to be made.   My concern, again, is that, restoring UK sovereignty in these areas will create greater headroom for political meddling and spin.

Michael Gove’s appointment as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was greeted with caution by many working in the environment, given his mixed track record in his previous roles.   We were, however, cautiously optimistic as, for the first months of his tenure, he made all the right noises. He is a politician who likes the big picture and is not afraid of a grand rethink of entrenched ideas.   However, the environment is a sphere of policy where grand rhetoric is cheap and the devil lies in the detail.  The consultation on environmental principles and accountability for the environment shows up the weakness of the UK’s muddled thinking on Brexit: the EU has many faults but handing back control of the environment to a parliament whose members are slaves to short-term cycles of public opinion is unlikely to deliver a greener future any time soon.

* in practice, of course, the four administrations of the UK may need to report separately in the future.   England might well drop a couple of places whist Scotland and Wales could improve, simply due to the differences in population density.

Note

The blog on the www.brexitenvironment.co.uk website is well worth a visit if you want to learn more about this topic.