Back to news and stories

Changing the current on the future of our rivers at the SusSH Rivers Assembly


Basiic Maill iicon
Basic Twitter Icon
Basic Linkedin Icon
Basic Facebook Icon

June 26, 2023

The Sustainable South Hams Rivers Assembly, the first of its kind in the UK, saw around 150 project, group and community leaders gather to share knowledge, discuss projects and develop new ideas.

The rivers of the South Hams, as with all rivers across the UK, are under intense pressure. Agricultural runoff, sewage pollution, climate change and disruptive infrastructure are among the many factors causing harm to these vital arteries of our landscape. Many groups are working to try and protect our rivers, their wildlife and surrounding ecology, but they can end up working in isolation, reinventing the wheel and lacking connection to one another.

The Rivers Assembly, held in Kingsbridge on the 18th March, was Sustainable South Hams’ plan to connect the dots between these many organisations and their important work.

A range of experts opened the event with introductions to their work and the five river catchments of the South Hams, the Yealm, Erme, Avon, Dart and Salcombe-Kingsbridge Estuary. A key focus was on the Yealm Estuary to Moor (YEM) project, introduced by YEM chair Peter Brown, as an exemplar project for joined-up thinking around river monitoring and conservation.

Attendees had the chance to discuss their own local projects and passions with each other, and with the representatives of the many organisations represented in the exhibition space, ranging from grassroots sustainability groups to Devon Wildlife Trust, the Environment Agency, South West Water and more.

There were also opportunities for roundtable discussions centred on each of the catchment areas. These conversations took immediate effect, with exciting new catchment projects in the works connecting all the way up the Erme and Avon rivers. In ‘River Reflections & Future Directions’, the creative space led by a research team from the University of Plymouth with artist Emma Jones, participants took time to consider their relationships with their local rivers through talking, writing and creating art.

Delegates were also invited to interact with a map of the river catchments created by Zoe Latham from University of Plymouth. By the end of the day, the map was covered in projects and potential sampling points across the South Hams.

The day rounded up with Topic Spotlight sessions, with talks, Q&A and discussions on specific subject areas.

The Infrastructure & Regulation room saw representatives from twelve South Hams parishes meeting with representatives from South West Water and the Environment Agency. Three new groups/concepts have been created as a direct result of this session: a Parish & Town council planning group to develop standard responses to planning applications that do not include sustainable drainage methods and are likely to increase storm overflows; an initiative from Totnes town council to ensure that South West Water must be consulted on planning applications to ensure that capacity is considered and addressed prior to planning approval; and a scrutiny group to develop the concept of ‘shadow regulation’, inspired by the huge success of the Windrush Against Sewage Pollution project.

Two Nature Rooms were needed to cover the wide range of interest and expertise. In the first, the group discussed ‘slowing the flow’ to create more space for nature around waterways. This can be done by adding barriers to ‘rewiggle’ waterways and broaden streams, adapting old ponds, and creating new ponds for important standing water habitats. The introduction of species was also covered, looking at the complex habitats created by beavers and the connection between people and nature supported by characterful animals like water voles.

The second Nature Room addressed a broad range of topics. The group considered personal responsibility for pollution and how that can be communicated, the impact of agriculture and industry on streams, and the fragile but crucial salt marshes of the River Dart. They also covered the importance of trees along rivers and the barriers to effective tree planting.

In the Measuring & Data room, the role of citizen science in monitoring rivers and supporting the push for accountability from industry and government bodies was discussed, with a key focus on the Westcountry Citizen Science Investigations programme and its use in the YEM project. Another discussion highlighted that beyond water quality (and potential legal challenges to protect that), we are in need of some big discussions around not having enough water in the near future.

The group in the Engagement Room worked with the ideas of connection through pre-existing interests from surfing to fishing, the need for people power in getting policy makers to take notice, and the crucial importance of collaboration for joining forces, developing ideas and supporting one another.

Organiser and Sustainable South Hams CEO Jane Nichols said: “Our rivers need help now more than ever, and so many people are working to be a part of that. We’ve seen today how important it is that we all help to monitor, support and protect the environment.

“Although rivers are our focus, they are intrinsically connected to the entire landscape around them, so joined-up thinking is really needed. It’s been wonderful to have met so many incredibly passionate people here, and to watch them work together for the future of our rivers, our wildlife and our beautiful natural world.”

Find information on the event speakers and exhibitors at and find lots of information in our Rivers Resource Pack.