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What have our rivers ever done for us?

Posted: Wednesday 20th November 2013 by Living Rivers

Mimram at TewinMimram at Tewin

Ecosystem services

Last Saturday at our AGM we were lucky enough to have Tony Juniper as our guest speaker. For those of you unfamiliar with his work, Tony has a long history of environmental campaigning and has held many high profile roles, including Executive Director of Friends of the Earth UK and eight years as Vice Chair of Friends of the Earth International. He is currently Special Adviser to the Prince of Wales Charities’ International Sustainability Unit and a Trustee of the Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire Wildlife Trust. More background on his illustrious career to date can be found here.

Tony Juniper at the AGMSo, a VIP speaker indeed. The thrust of his talk was about the financial value of nature, or ‘ecosystem services’, which is the theme of his latest book ‘What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?’. Many of us who care about conservation are motivated by a moral or spiritual sense of the value of nature – it is important because ‘it just is’! Sadly, convincing politicians and decision makers of this in these difficult economic times is not easy. So, in his book, Tony Juniper pulls together the existing research and economic arguments which put a monetary value on the many services which nature provides for us. It is sobering stuff.

Take pollination . Two-thirds of our crops rely on animal pollination – by insects, birds and mammals. The annual value of this pollination service to farming is $190 billion. The annual value of sales dependent on animal pollination is $1 trillion. The figures are mind boggling. And it can – and does - go horribly wrong. In Sichuan province in China, heavy pesticide use over the past few decades has eradicated their bees. Now, the pollination of the fruit crops grown in this part of the country has to be done by hand – imagine the implications if this became a worldwide phenomenon.

Interestingly for me, the book also discusses the value of Catchment Management – something which, as you know, I'm involved with here in Hertfordshire. He gives the example of New York City, where water for nine million residents is supplied by the 2000sq mile Catskill catchment. Enlightened authorities have done the ‘math’, and realized that it is much cheaper to protect and restore the catchment to ensure good water quality (approx. $1bn) than it is to build and run water treatment works (a massive $6-8bn) to deal with poor water quality. There are various financial incentives in place to encourage voluntary actions on the part of land managers to achieve this. And of course, the knock-on benefits for biodiversity are substantial.  Examples like this are inspiring and it’s great to have some figures to add weight to arguments for joined up, large scale conservation.

Valuable places for recreationBut what about our chalk rivers? I’ve been thinking about what the ecosystem service value of restoring our chalk rivers might be.  To me, the obvious service provided by having healthy chalk rivers here in densely populated Hertfordshire is recreation. Chalk rivers are valuable pockets of nature, where we can go to recreate both body and soul. Who would argue with the therapeutic benefits of taking time out from our stressful and busy lives to wander along a bubbling chalk river, and watch a kingfisher dart past? And of course the physical benefits of getting more active in our countryside are undisputed.

But there are undoubtedly other services provided by having healthy, functioning chalk rivers. One that immediately springs to mind is flood relief. In a river with healthy flows, the constant flow is enough to prevent siltation of the river channel and preclude the clogging vegetation which we so often see in over-abstracted river systems. A healthy river is a self-regulating system, which has no need for dredging.  During higher flows, water can be transported away down the relatively clear channel. However, where flows are low, this may not be the case – vegetation and silt can reduce the capacity of the channel, making flooding more likely.

Many of our chalk rivers were previously (and some still are) commercially valuable sport fisheries – for example, the River Beane was a famous trout fishing river before the advent of the Whitehall pumping station. People would travel from all over the country to taste (literally!) its delights. The current state of the Beane means it is now rarely fished, and economic benefits are lost to the local community.

There must be a myriad of other ecosystem services provided by Hertfordshire’s rivers – drinking water for stock, disposal of treated effluent from sewage treatment works, the added value to properties of having a beautiful chalk stream in the garden. Can you think of any more? I’d really like to hear your ideas and opinions on this – please get in touch.

Children and nature

To the River!I was thrilled to receive an email from a local councillor recently about an area of river where a restoration project is ongoing. They told me that ‘since the work, I have seen children in the river all summer this year – for practically the first time in 10 years!’ Lovely to hear such a valediction of river restoration, and it backs up something which really seems to be true – areas of healthy river which are valuable for wildlife are also those areas which appeal most to people.

Engaging people, especially children, with their local river is something which I believe is incredibly important. Myself and colleagues at HMWT are currently delivering a series of school visits and trips to the River Ver in St Albans, Children looking at river invertebrateswith the express aims of engaging children with the river and inspiring them to implement water efficiency measures in their homes and schools. The first of these visits took place last week, with a Year 5 class coming down to the river to do some dipping with nets, and discuss the effect of abstraction on the river. They’ve now been set the challenge of developing water saving action plans for the class, their school and their homes. I can’t wait to see how they get on!

Some of you may be aware of a recent film release – Project Wild Thing. It's a feature length film about the sad disconnection with nature experienced by many children, and how we can re-engage the younger generation with wildness. I'm really excited that HMWT are hoping to arrange a local screening of the film – watch this space for more details!



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