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 year. The 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.