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The State of the South Hams' Rivers


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June 26, 2023

With the Sustainable South Hams Rivers Assembly coming up in less than a month, find out more about the current state of our rivers, the challenges we are facing and the actions we can take to help make the South Hams’ rivers some of the cleanest and most wildlife friendly in the country.

There are five main river catchments in the district; the Avon, the Dart, the Erme, Salcombe/Kingsbridge Estuary & the Yealm. Across all of the water bodies in these river catchments, none enjoy a High ecological status, which would mean being in a ‘natural or almost natural state with no, or only minor evidence of distortion’.

It is true that 18 water bodies rated Good - having a ‘slight change from natural state as a result of human impact’.  But 24 only have a Moderate rating with ‘moderate change from natural state as a result of human impact’. One water body (part of the Erme) is Poor, because it is suffering ‘major change from natural state as a result of human activity’.

There are several factors that prevent water bodies from achieving Good status, but the two most prominent industry sectors which are problematic are agriculture and the water industry.

Agriculture and sewage infrastructure can result in excess nutrient being introduced into river systems. These nutrients can build up in the water, causing significant damage to wildlife and biodiversity, so reducing their impact is key to sustaining river health.

Sewage spills are surprisingly frequent events; combined sewer overflows release a mix of rainwater and untreated sewage directly into watercourses. In 2021, ten South Hams sewer overflows each discharged untreated sewage into our waters for more than a thousand hours. We do not think that is good enough. It is way beyond being “exceptional”.

There needs to be proper investment in hard infrastructure and other softer measures to reduce nutrient inputs. The existing sewerage capacity is likely to be further strained by future development plans.

So what can we do?

A lack of data makes it harder to track pollution events & risks so as to report these to the Environment Agency and  to support arguments for preventative measures. We can build on the work of the Citizen Science Investigation scheme, involving members of the public in studying and understanding the state of our rivers.

By way of example and inspiration, we can look to local organisations such as the Yealm Estuary to Moor group or the River Yealm Water Quality Group, which is a collaboration between six parish councils. The Rivers Assembly will be a fantastic chance to learn from the wide range of groups and organisations in the South Hams, and to develop your own projects.

We can also look further afield to successful pressure groups like WASP (Windrush Against Sewage Pollution) who are working to keep a watch on what happens in their rivers.

This will support the vital effort to scrutinise and, if necessary, challenge the upcoming South West Water 2025-2030 infrastructure investment plan.

Healthy rivers are crucial in supporting wildlife, biodiversity and our own engagement with the natural world, but they face ever-increasing stress from human influences. Joining the dots and working together will be key to tackling these pressures, working towards High ecological status and helping our rivers to thrive.

Note: The South West Water 2024 Water Resources Management Plan is currently open for feedback. You can read the draft plan and find out how to submit your feedback here.