ESSAY: Rivers are the lifeblood of our land

The empty River Yare at Reedham during the Coronavirus lockdown. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The River Yare at Reedham, downstream from where sewage has been discharged into the river - Credit: Denise Bradley

The problems of river pollution have been in the headlines a lot in recent days. CHRIS BISHOP wonders how we can best protect our waterways from the threat of development

I fell in love with rivers as soon as I was old enough to strap a fishing rod to the bar of my bike and pedal off in search of roach and perch.

I'll swear the waters were clearer in those long lost days, when dace danced in the shallows and kingfishers darted past in a flash of blue.

As a 12-year-old with eyes glued to a bright red float, I never dreamed it could all come unstuck. For the rivers that flowed through my younger years seemed so brim-full of life.

Yet instead of protecting our biggest natural asset for generations to come, we've abstracted the life out of them, choked gravel runs with silt and robbed fish of their spawning grounds.

Now new figures - reported in the EDP earlier this week - show the extent we've sunk to treating them as back-up sewers too.

More and more houses, retail parks and roads, coupled with less and less open ground to soak up rainfall can only mean one thing when the heavens open.

Waste and sewage flooding the gardens of residents in Hevingham due to overflowing manholes. Picture

Sewage floods into a garden after the drains back up - Credit: Danielle Booden

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Water runs off into the drains, instead of being soaked up by the land. They carry it into the sewers, which can't cope with the deluge and start backing up.

So we pump them off into the nearest river, to stop sewage flooding into homes. Did no-one ever sit down and foresee this?

Norfolk's rivers had sewage discharged into them for the equivalent of almost 1,500 days in 2021. It's nothing short of an environmental disgrace.

Wherry Yacht Charter Charitable Trust.Hathors relaunch and 110th anniversary celebrations at How

The Ant is one of the rivers which sewage has been discharged into - Credit: James Bass

The Gaywood River, in the west of the county, the River Ant, on the Broads, and Cut-Off Channel, in the Fens, were all affected for more than 100 days, suffering multiple 'spills' - as they are euphemistically known - each.

Just 8pc of our waterways are rated as "good" by the Environment Agency in terms of their quality. So what about the other 92pc..?

There's high-handed talk of new legislation and new requirements for water companies to stop spills - by 2035, 2040, or 2050.

In a little over 25 years' time, 80pc will have been stopped, hopes the Environment Agency.

That might be too late for the dace and kingfishers or the dwindling native brown trout - not to mention the insect life which underpins the entire ecosystem, rare plants and increasingly rare wildlife.

The River Wensum in Norwich had the most sewage spills in Norfolk last year

Just 8pc of Norfolk's rivers are rated as being "good" quality - Credit: Denise Bradley

Of course we need new homes and, you could probably argue, supermarkets, car parks and the like.

But there's a balance that needs to be struck now, before we choke our rivers to death. For as our changing climate brings more extreme rainfall events, things will only get worse if we don't get a grip.

Norfolk boasts nine chalk streams, which should be the highest-quality waters of them all. Instead of trout sipping mayfly over gravel beds, or chub lazing beneath the streamer reed, the state of one or two is little short of a disgrace.

Councillor Rob Colwell beside the Gaywood River

Councillor Rob Colwell beside the Gaywood River - Credit: Rob Colwell

There are calls for urgent action over the state of the Gaywood River. While it's not exactly the Test or Hampshire Avon, it's a chalk river nonetheless - or it should be. 

Yet it too suffers from sewage. Parts of it are now devoid of life, according to local councillor Rob Colwell. 

On Monday, county councillors were due to discuss a motion calling for the council to write to the secretary of state for the environment calling for "urgent enforcement" of legislation already in place "to progressively reduce the adverse impacts of storm overflow discharges".

The motion did not go to the vote, because opposition councillors walked out in protest at the council's decision to slash free school meal vouchers instead.

The Norfolk Broads are one of the region's treasures.

The Norfolk Broads are one of the region's treasures. - Credit: Denise Bradley

But before the county council put the state of our rivers on the back burner, the heat was being well and truly turned up elsewhere.

This month's bombshell announcement from Natural England that Norfolk councils can't allow new homes unless they can demonstrate they will not lead to more pollution flowing into our waterways could be a game changer.

As well as sewage - if that isn't bad enough - our waterways are also under threat from excess nutrients like phosphates and nitrates.

The chemicals, which come from sewage treatment, septic tanks, farming and industry, cause algal blooms which sap oxygen from the water killing fish and aquatic wildlife.

Work under way on a new housing development in Norfolk.

Granting of permission over new housing developments in a number of areas in Norfolk has been halted. - Credit: Archant

Shallow waters, like some of the Fen drains are vulnerable in warm weather.

Developers will have to mitigate by creating new wetlands, reedbeds, woodland or grasslands - providing new spaces for nature and recreation in the process - or installing environmentally-friendly sustainable drainage systems.

There might be a few headaches down the town hall when the planning committee meets, but the embargo can only be a good thing. Let's face it, it's long overdue. 

One of the biggest areas under threat from algal blooms is the Broads, the jewel in Norfolk's crown.

People enjoying a day out on boats on the Norfolk Broads.

Countless thousands enjoy the Broads - Credit: Danielle Booden

How many boaters, birders, kayakers, walkers, anglers or artists depend on them for their nature fix or wild time, how many businesses or jobs do they support? 

We need to safeguard all of our rivers, from the humblest brook to the Wensum and the Ouse. 

They are the lifeblood of our land, the arteries which enrich all of our lives.