The way things were …

Writing the previous post led me to contemplate how much things had changed over the time that I have been working in this field.  Back in the early 1990s when I first set out to look at the response of diatoms to nutrients in streams, few in the National Rivers Authority (NRA, predecessor to the Environment Agency) regarded phosphorus as a serious pollutant in rivers, and most biologists thought about ecological quality solely in terms of organic pollution and invertebrates.   In order to investigate the effect of nutrients, I wanted to visit sites where organic pollution was not a problem.

I was helped in this task by the work done by biologists at the then Institute for Freshwater Ecology (now Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) who had just developed the early versions of RIVPACS (“River Invertebrate Prediction and Classification System”) which established the principle of expressing ecological quality as the observed quality / expected quality.  This, in turn, required an ability to predict the “expected” condition for any stream.   The work that had developed these equations started from a dataset of invertebrate and environmental data collected from a wide range of “unpolluted” running water sites which, in those far off days, was compiled by asking biologists working for the Regional Water Authorities (predecessors to the NRA) for their recommendations of sites that were of “good” or “fairly good” quality.  Nowadays, screening sites to be used for calibrating ecological methods is a much more rigorous procedure but this was the first tentative step on a long journey and “expert judgement” was as good a place to start as any.

The paper that emerged from this exercise (see reference below) analysed data from these “unpolluted” sites and classified them into eight groups.  Each of these groups consisted of sites that shared similar invertebrate assemblages which reflected similarities in the habitat, from upland, fast flowing becks to deep, wide slow-flowing rivers in the lowlands.  The authors included a useful table that listed the physical and chemical characteristics of each of these groups and I noticed that the phosphorus concentrations reported for these spanned a very wide range.   This meant that I could use these as the basis for putting together a sampling program that spanned a long gradient of nutrient pressure without the complications of organic pollution.   The outcome of that work was the first of the two papers referenced in my previous post.

Time has moved on and I thought it would be interesting to revisit these “unpolluted” sites to see how they would be classified using the UK’s current standards for phosphorus.  This highlights a striking difference between the prevailing idea of “unpolluted” in the early 1980s and the present day, as all of these groups had average concentrations that equate to substantial enrichment by modern standards; in half the groups this average concentration would be classified as “poor status” whilst the maximum concentrations in three groups equates to “bad status”.   Whatever way you look at it now, these sites were far from “unpolluted”.

Classification of TWINSPAN end-groups of unpolluted river sites in Great Britain based on Armitage et al. (1984) along with average and maximum phosphorus concentrations recorded in each group and the phosphorus status based on current environmental standards.  M = moderate status; P = poor status; B = bad status.

I am not being critical of the approach taken by Patrick Armitage and colleagues.  In many ways, I regard the work of this group as one of the most significant contributions to the science of ecological assessment in my lifetime.   I am just intrigued to see how the thinking of ecologists and regulators has moved on in the thirty years or so since this paper was published.  I know from my own early conversations with NRA biologists that inorganic nutrients were not perceived as a problem in rivers until the early 1990s.   It was probably the European Community’s Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (UWWTD) that started to draw the attention of biologists in the UK to these problems, and which led to the development of stricter environmental standards for nutrients, though not without opposition from several quarters.

This, then is a situation where good legislation provided the impetus needed to start the process.  There were places in the UK – rivers in the Norfolk Broads, for example – where nutrients were already being regulated, but these were special circumstances and nutrient problems in most rivers were largely ignored. Indeed, as I said in my previous post, phosphorus was not even measured routinely in many rivers.   I heard via my professional grapevine that it was the Netherlands who had made the case for the clauses in the UWWTD concerning regulating nutrients, as their stretches of the lower Rhine were subject to numerous problems caused by unregulated inputs of nutrients from countries upstream.   I do not know if this is true, but it is certainly plausible.   However, once the need to control eutrophication in rivers was codified in UK law, then the debate about how to evaluate it started, one of the outcomes of which was more funding for me to develop the Trophic Diatom Index (referenced in the previous post).  And, gradually, over time, concentrations in rivers really did start to fall (see “The state of things, part 2”).   I’d like to think the TDI played a small part in this; though this might also mean that I am partially responsible for the steep increase in water charges that everyone endured in order to pay for better water quality …


Armitage, P.D., Moss, D., Wright, J.F. & Furse, M.T. (1984).  The performance of a new biological water quality score system based on macroinvertebrates over a wide range of unpolluted running-water sites.  Water Research 17: 333-347.

A river is reborn …

I started to tell the story of the Ouseburn in the previous post, but have not yet reached a happy ending.  The Beast that is Newcastle Airport has been transformed, if not by a kiss, then by intelligent regulation, but the river is still far from being beautiful.   The Environment Agency, the Handsome Prince in this particular fairy story (has it ever been described in such terms before?) needs to ride out to find other monsters to slay.

One candidate that my students usually identify in their write-ups is phosphorus, whose concentrations have gradually crept up over the years, as the graph below illustrates.   As in the graphs in my previous posts, I have differentiated between data collected by the Environment Agency and my students.  I have also circled a cluster of points that sit outside the main trend, as a reminder that my students are still learning their craft, and sometimes may make mistakes.   The trend is, nonetheless apparent: the river has had elevated phosphorus concentrations for as long as measurements have been taken, and concentrations are gradually creeping upwards.  The student’s data may exaggerate this slightly, but the trend is definitely there.    Although no sewage works discharge to the stream, there are plenty of storm drains, and there are concerns that domestic “grey water”, and its associated detergent residues, may be entering these rather than the foul sewers.  More recently, a study as part of the Ouseburn River Restoration Project (ORRP) has found that some farmers in the upper part of the catchment are stockpiling farmyard manure on behalf of livery stables and some of the leachate from this may be entering the upper stretches of the river.


Trends in concentrations of reactive phosphorus in the Ouseburn over time.  Woolsington is upstream of the airport, Airport tributary (Abbotswood Burn) receives runoff from Newcastle Airport and Jesmond Dene is about 10 km downstream from the airport.  Closed symbols are annual means of data collected by the National Rivers Authority and Environment Agency; open symbols are means of data collected and analysed by Newcastle University Geography students in October (once also in February) of each yearThe lower dashed line is the UK environmental standard for reactive phosphorus to support “good ecological status”; the upper dashed line is the threshold between “moderate” and “poor” status (the threshold between “poor” and “bad” status is at 1.04 mg/L).

In addition to problems such as phosphorus that we can see from our analyses, there are problems that are less obvious because they only happen occasionally, and not necessarily when a sampler is dipping a bottle into the river.  The Pantomime Villain of this story (“He’s behind you …” “oh no he’s not”, “oh yes he is …”) is the overloaded sewerage network and, in particular, the storm sewer overflows which divert foul waste into the river when the sewers are overloaded with surface water from heavy rain.   Even though the graphs in the previous post showed that ammonia and BOD are usually at low levels, there will be short periods when the storm sewers dump raw sewage into the river.  This is a great lesson to my students in why biological monitoring is so necessary: the poor quality of the invertebrate community reflects the state of the river through the whole year, not just the minute or so when the sampler’s bottle is being filled.

A combination of hard impermeable surfaces, the drainage system with its overflows and many artificially-straightened lengths of the river mean that storm water makes its way very quickly to the stream (see “Fieldwork in the rain”).  In extreme cases this can lead to homes and businesses being flooded.   These straightened sections of the river also mean that there is little variation in velocity to create the variation in habitat that would allow a range of organisms to find suitable conditions to thrive.   So another of the objectives of the ORRP is to restore the natural meandering path of the river in the upper stretches as a first step towards creating a more natural river which will, at the same time, slow the flow and reduce the likelihood of flooding downstream.   New property developments such as Newcastle Great Park have been designed with Sustainable Drainage Systems (see “In search of SuDS …”) to create more permeable areas that will soak up rainfall and slow its journey to the river, reducing the size of the flood peaks associated with heavy rainfall.


Challenges facing the Ouseburn: left: Newcastle Great Park, one of a number of new or planned housing developments in the upper part of the catchment; right: straightened river channel near Three Mile Bridge beside the Great North Road in Newcastle.

To be honest, there are many grander rivers in the country than the Ouseburn where I would prefer to do my fieldwork.  I feel privileged to be able to visit the River Ehen in the Lake District on a regular basis.   We rightly worry about maintaining fragile ecosystems and rare species in these remote places but the Ouseburn presents equal, if less romantic, challenges.   Most of us are urban, rather than rural dwellers and our most likely interactions with the aquatic world will be with these artificially-straightened extensions to our overloaded sewerage systems.   There is something of Frankenstein’s monster about these rivers: at their worst, in flood, they are our own creations, the result of our own attempts to overrule nature.  So I am very enthusiastic about the work of the ORRP and similar schemes around the country.   These are a small step towards restoring a natural harmony between man and water, and working with, rather than against the powers of nature.  And creating a greener, more pleasant urban milieu in the process.

A day out in Weardale …


Fine weather towards the end of last week lured me away from my computer screen and out to Weardale on the flimsiest of pretexts, and gave me an opportunity to drag this blog away from musing about pandas and Taoism and back to its core business.   Forty minutes drive from home brings me to Frosterley, in the historic mining and quarrying areas of the valley, though enough time has elapsed for the hard edges of the industrial heritage to have been rubbed away by the gradual incursions of nature.   It is a beautiful spot, with the river meandering down a tree-lined channel with wildlife in profusion.

Understanding a river is partly about recognising patterns at different scales and just as one can look at a landscape such as the one above and infer something about its conditions (fast-flowing water? relatively natural channel?  low population density?) so a naturalist should be able to adjust his or her focus and read the story of the river at smaller and smaller scales.   It takes a few moments to adjust – physically and mentally – to searching at these finer scales, but the story of the river started to open up once I looked more closely.

There were a number of small dark green patches on the river bed, most noticeable towards the margins (maybe because my wellingtons limited my explorations to the shallower parts of the channel).   They were slimy to the touch and I could make a guess at their identity, but needed to get them under a microscope before I could confirm this.   That’s one of the problems with my kind of natural history: there is none of the immediacy that a birdwatcher or field botanist gets from putting a name onto organisms in the field.  Underneath the microscope, however, my alga yielded up its secrets: I could see narrow filaments composed of cells each with a single chloroplast lapped around most of the perimeter, with a number of side branches, each gradually tapering to an acute apex.  This is Stigeoclonium tenue, a common alga of streams and rivers although possibly less common now than was the case a couple of decades ago.  It is hard to be sure because it is easily overlooked and there is no systematic recording of these organisms, but I am not the only person to voice this suspicion.


Stigeoclonium tenue from the River Wear at Frosterley.  Left: macroscopic view showing tufts of green filaments attached to a submerged stone (scale bar: approximately 1 centimetre); right: microscopic view (scale bar: 10 micrometres = 1/100th of a millimetre).

Looking at these filaments, I can read a little more about the state of the river than I could infer from my landscape-scale perspective at the top of this post.   I can suggest to you that this river is, or has been in the recent past, flush with the nutrients that Stigeoclonium and other plants need to thrive.   Why do I know this?   I shared laboratory space as a PhD student with a colleague, Martin Gibson, who was investigating the physiology of this species and its relatives.  This built on earlier work by Brian Whitton and others which showed that when nutrients were scarce, the branches of Stigeoclonium were much longer, tapering gradually into fine, elongated cells that were devoid of chloroplasts.  These had special enzymes which were able to break down organic compounds that contained the phosphorus that the alga needed.   When nutrients were plentiful, these hairs disappeared.

I strongly suspect that, were I to look at recent phosphorus measurements in this part of the Wear, they would indicate low concentrations, which might suggest that my inference is wrong.  However, the Environment Agency’s standard approach to measuring water chemistry is based on a single visit each month and we know, from finer-scale studies, that phosphorus concentrations can vary greatly over short periods of time (particularly related to changes in the weather and flow regime).  We also know that their standard analytical method does not record phosphorus that is tightly bound into molecules.   The Environment Agency’s approach is good enough to give the basic insights into rivers that they need to regulate the environment, but misses many of the nuances.   That’s why an understanding of the ecology of apparently insignificant organisms can be so useful to river managers.

One of the reasons I wanted some samples of algae from the River Wear was to see if we can simplify the process of identifying algae, in order to make these insights more available.  I’ve written already about RAPPER  (see “The Democratisation of Stream Ecology?”) but so far those of us who have tested this have all had access to high power microscopes.   It is possible to buy field microscopes at a much lower cost but these typically only have a maximum of 100x magnification.  One of my objectives for this year is to see just how can be identified with this limitation.    The image below was taken at 100x using my main microscope, and you can see that the basic form of Stigeoclonium can still be resolved and, indeed, differentiated from related genera such as Draparnaldia (see “The River Ehen in February”), so this is an encouraging first step.  If we can repeat this with the other algae used in RAPPER, then all sorts of possibilities for “citizen science” open up …


Stigeoclonium from the River Wear at Frosterley, photographed at 100x magnification.


Gibson, M.T. and Whitton, B.A. (1987).   Hairs, phosphatase activity and environmental chemistry in Stigeoclonium, Chaetophora and Draparnaldia (Chaetophorales). British Phycological Journal 22, 11-22.

Gibson, M.T. and Whitton, B.A. (1987).  Influence of phosphorus on morphology and physiology of freshwater Chaetophora, Draparnaldia and Stigeoclonium (Chaetophorales, Chlorophyta). Phycologia 26: 59-69.

Whitton, B.A. & Harding J.P.C. (1978).  Influence of nutrient deficiency on hair formation in Stigeoclonium.  British Phycological Journal  13: 65-68.

The state of things, part 2

If the last post presented a fairly optimistic picture of the quality of Britain’s rivers over the past 30 years, this one is more of a reality check, highlighting some areas where our rivers are still suffering from pollution which means that they are unlikely to meet EU targets.

The first pollutant I will consider in this post is phosphorus.   The data for this and other inorganic nutrients is not summarised by regions but by the predominant type of agriculture in the catchment, reflecting the importance of run-off from land as a source of these pollutants.   However, much phosphorus enters our rivers via sewage works and, as we saw for BOD and other pollutants associated with organic pollution, the trend over the past twenty years or so is generally downwards. Note that the start of the downward trend does not start until the mid 1990s.   This is because reducing phosphorus in effluents only became a legal requirement when the EU’s Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive came into force. The horizontal lines, once again, represent the UK standards for dissolved phosphorus in rivers.   There is a story behind these standards, in which I played a minor role.


Trends in average inorganic phosphorus (PO4-P) concentrations in rivers draining three different land types in Great Britain. Note that the vertical axis is on a logarithmic scale.   The horizontal lines show recent UK standards required to support different classes of ecological status (see text for more details).

You’ll see that the trend lines for the two lowland land types are approaching but have not decisively crossed the line which indicates “good status”.   Presence of a certain phosphorus concentration does not, itself, determine status but these indicate guide values that ecologists believe should be attained if the river is to support a healthy ecosystem. I was involved in setting the original standards and our team originally set values that were much lower than those that were eventually adopted.   We had worked out concentrations that were associated with locations where we had found healthy ecosystems.   However, when these figures made their way through the bureaucracies of our regulatory organisations, they encountered strong resistance from those charged with actually achieving the reductions.   You’ll see that average concentrations have more than halved during the first decade of the 21st century – a considerable achievement. To be told that these concentrations were not low enough was a bitter pill to swallow. To cut a long story short, statistical black arts were performed behind the scenes (not by us, I hasten to add) to justify a higher standard, eventually set at 0.12 milligrams per Litre.

The cavalier fashion in which this original phosphorus standard was set meant that, before long had passed, weaknesses started to become apparent.   Not least of which was that rivers that should, on paper, have had conditions suited to good ecological status continued to have plant and algal communities that were not characteristic of good status.   Eventually, the phosphorus standards were revisited and, in most cases, made more stringent, though not without opposition from the water companies who would bear much of the burden of meeting these.   These new standards would pull each of the horizontal lines on my graph lower, and so make the overall position look yet more pessimistic.

The trend for one other important plant nutrient in GB rivers is equally pessimistic. Concentrations of nitrogen as nitrate have shown virtually no reductions at all over the period that the HMS has been operating.   There are, I think, two reasons for this. The first is that ecologists generally stress the importance of phosphorus over nitrogen as the key nutrient in freshwaters, which means that nitrogen concentrations have received less attention than, perhaps, they deserve. The second reason is more political: the biggest source of nitrates in our rivers is agriculture and DEFRA has to balance the interests of the environment with that of the vocal and politically-powerful farming lobby.   That there is no ecologically-based standard for nitrates in UK rivers tells its own story.   We could easily have produced a standard for nitrates at the same time as we revised the phosphorus standards (the information we needed was in the same spreadsheet) but were warned off. There is, in theory, a standard for nitrates in freshwaters, produced to meet the requirements of the EU’s Nitrates Directive but this was designed to protect human health, not ecology, and is set at a very high concentration. Rather than use this, I have plotted the standards used in the Republic of Ireland on my charts and, assuming that an equivalent UK standard would be of a similar magnitude, these show that the nitrate concentration of lowland rivers is generally much higher than these values.   This is, of course, a very broad-brush picture but it gives us a rough idea of what is going on.


Trends in average inorganic nitrogen (as nitrate) concentrations in rivers draining three different land types in Great Britain. There are no current UK standards for nitrate-N concentrations required to support different classes of ecological status; those plotted here are for the Republic of Ireland.

Looking back at the two posts, the picture that emerges is of reasonably good regulation of those types of pollutants that have been the traditional focus of regulation.   Both the water companies and the regulators understand the processes need to reduce organic pollution levels in sewage effluents, and the necessity for doing this.   The last twenty years or so have seen a change in focus towards inorganic nutrients and here we run into problems. First of all, the benefits for the public are often not immediately clear which, in turn, makes increasing water bills to pay for the expensive process of phosphorus removal more difficult. I have heard staff from water companies raise this argument several times when arguing against tighter regulation of phosphorus.   But the second problem is that regulation of nutrients needs to embrace diffuse inputs from agriculture as well as point sources.   This presents a huge problem as there are many more farms than sewage works to be visited, many of which are struggling to survive in a tough economic climate.   Consequently, there is little political will to drive the process from the top.   These are, indeed, challenging times for freshwater ecologists.

The truth is sometimes stranger than fiction …

Just before Christmas I had an idea for a story: a group of campaigners battling to save the last polluted river in the country before the evil utility company ceased to pour in their effluents and a unique and unusual ecosystem was lost forever.  It was, obviously, not a very serious topic but there were serious ideas behind it.  There are also precedents, with some former industrial land now protected as Sites of Special Scientific Interest because of its distinctive flora.

The thinking behind the story was that the factor most likely to lead to widespread reduction in pollution is not better regulation but the profit motive.   A few months earlier, I had watched a TV news story whilst in a hotel room, describing how Thames Water was able to extract phosphorus from sewage, process it into fertiliser then sell it to farmers.   Much of my professional work addresses the better regulation of phosphorus in the environment but I also know that there is a global shortage of phosphorus, which has stimulated considerable commercial interest in recovering phosphorus from sewage effluent.   The market, in other words, may ultimately play as large – or even a larger – role than legislation in controlling phosphorus releases to the environment.

I ran with this idea a little further: suppose utility companies found other ways of making money from sewage?   This is already happening on a small scale, with capacity to store and use methane released during the decomposition of sewage.  The limiting factor, as in most aspects of waste disposal, is economics.  Imagine, however, that the costs of energy were to shift dramatically … suddenly the opportunities presented by the huge quantities of sewage – which is just a semi-liquid form of the cow pats that half a billion Indian farmers traditionally used as fuel – look more attractive.  How might utility companies react?

So I needed a plot device that pushed up the price of energy and, in the process, stimulated utility companies to invest in energy production on sewage treatment plants, along with the infrastructure to connect this to the grid.   Suppose, I speculated, relations between Russia and the West deteriorated, threatening the huge natural gas supplies on which central European countries such as Germany depends?   This, in turn, would create greater demand for other sources of energy and push up prices to the extent that alternative sources of fuel might look more attractive.

All I needed was a geopolitical scenario that would create this east-west tension and my plot synopsis would be complete.   On cue, the crowds gathered in Kiev to overthrow Viktor Yanukovych and suddenly my bright idea for a work of fiction looked a whole lot more plausible …