Belfast Telegraph

The volunteers keeping an eye on vulnerable stretches of our rivers

By Adrian Rutherford

Environment Agency workers have spent 30 minutes explaining their role in tackling pollution when Jim Gregg arrives, dressed in waders and carrying a large net.

The angler and Six Mile Water Trust member spends hours each month up to his waist in the river.

After a brief introduction, he clambers into the murky brown water to get a first hand view of the state of its eco-system.

Jim is one of several volunteers who give up their spare time to monitor the river for pollution, litter and diminishing bio-diversity issues which the Belfast Telegraph highlighted in May.

Three months on we returned, this time with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), to examine how it is dealing with the issues.

NIEA is a DoE department responsible for advising on and implementing the Government's environmental policy.

It works with volunteers, anglers and rivers trusts – groups set up to look after rivers – of which there are five including Blackwater, a cross-border partnership and the first international trust, with another two forming.

Jim gives a demonstration of how the public can play a key role in protecting our rivers.

As part of the Angler Monitoring Initiative (AMI), he has been monitoring invertebrates on a monthly basis at specific river sites since March last year.

He says: "We get into the water, put a net in and kick up-stream – disturbing the stones, the gravel and the mud.

"Invertebrates living there are disturbed and go into the sample net. We do a further one-minute search under big stones. We then count what is in the sample."

A score is given depending on the number and range of invertebrates found in the sample. If it falls below a set figure, Jim will contact NIEA.

Gerry Wilson, a catchment management officer, says the agency will do a more scientific analysis if concerns are raised.

"We'll do our own sampling to confirm the result," he explains.

"Then we'll do a river walk, in other words working our way up stream to find out what is causing the problem. We will look for pipes coming in or a possible discharge."

If there is a pollution incident, then NIEA's water quality inspection unit will take over the investigation and, where possible, prosecute those responsible.

There is little to concern the team during our visit to a section of river near Ballyclare.

Norman Henderson, from NIEA's water pollution team, lifts up a rock and points out a creature known as a cased caddis.

"These are the sort of things which fish feed on, so you're into the whole food chain," he explains. "The fact that they are here is a positive sign."

According to NIEA, around 1,200 confirmed pollution incidents are reported across Northern Ireland every year.

They can range from minor problems like a septic tank or heating oil leak to more serious incidents such as industrial chemical leaks which can lead to massive devastation.

Norman says around 85% of cases fall into the low category.

If serious pollution occurs, then water quality inspectors will investigate who is at fault.

"We are the people on the ground who respond," says Conor Symington, a senior inspector.

His team also lifts monitoring samples from rivers and monitors discharges, visiting industrial estates and farms to ensure they are compliant.

A lot of work is education, and future planning.

Alison McCaw works in NIEA's river basin planning unit, responsible for developing plans to improve waterways. The first set of plans were published in 2009.

She is confident that rivers, while not showing signs of major improvement, are not in decline.

"While there isn't significant improvement in the water environment, it is stable and certainly isn't declining," she adds.

"All the historical actions and investment are starting to turn things around. It took a long time for the natural eco-systems to decline, and it's going to take time for them to recover."

Belfast Telegraph


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