Farmers launch water testing project to assess pollution in River Wensum
Farmers in the Wensum Valley are funding their own water testing project to create a clearer picture of the causes of pollution in the protected river – and to find ways to prevent it.
The Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group comprises 25 farms working in collaboration across more than 10,000 hectares of land, aiming to bring about environmental improvements on a landscape scale.
The group is now self-funded after introducing a membership fee of £1 per hectare in the autumn, and some of the money has been used to buy water testing equipment recommended by the University of East Anglia following its water studies at the Salle Estate.
Testing is being carried out every two weeks at 10 sites stretching from Sculthorpe to Bylaugh, assessing the levels of phosphate and nitrate pollutants throughout field drains, ditches, tributaries and the main river.
Lizzie Emmett, Upper Wensum Cluster Farm Group advisor, said water was being tested before it left the farm in order to gather data unaffected by other potential polluters such as roads, industry and sewage treatment works.
She pointed to recent modelling which suggested agriculture contributed around 30pc of phosphate pollution in the river, whereas sewage treatment works contribute an average of 54pc, reaching a peak of 70pc in some cases.
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“There is so much talk about farmers using cover cropping or min-till to reduce pollution and improve soils, but hardly anyone is testing the field drains of a cover-cropped field, or above and below a sewage outlet,” she said.
“By assessing the drains and ditches, we can get a recording of that water when it has only been affected by agriculture. There is no industry, no roads, no sewage treatment works. So it is a way of getting a controlled sample.
“The Wensum is really suffering ecologically with water quality and siltation from years and years of alteration. There needs to be an overhaul in the whole system and to get that we need some more robust data.
“Yes, we want to target our on-farm practices and make sure we are doing everything we can in terms of cover cropping, silt traps, improving soil organic matter, but we felt that was not enough to get us to where we want to get to.
“The water quality testing is the next level. That data is reported directly back to the farmers and, as far as they are concerned, data and information is power. They feel motivated, empowered and proud to be involved.
“All our members feel very protective and have an emotional investment in the river. We want to see the river improve and we wanted to take control of that.”
Miss Emmett said she hopes the long-term testing project could generate “influential and insightful data” within the next 6-12 months, running alongside the group’s other environmental projects including pond restoration, cover cropping, species surveying and habitat enhancement.
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