New research will investigate how pollution impacts our country’s rivers, develop better monitoring methods and put forward solutions for better chemical management to improve water quality.

The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Defra are investing a total of £8.4 million to better understand current and projected changes in the quality of UK freshwaters, with two of the five funded projects led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH).

Pollutants from agricultural and industrial chemicals, plastic, sewage and wastewater have negative impacts upon the ecosystems that we rely on, contaminating river water and threatening animals and plants. Their use throughout society has led to increasing concentrations and diversity of chemical pollutants in the environment.

In addition to these pressures, climate change is also expected to affect the quality and biodiversity of UK rivers.

A project led by UKCEH will develop a model to make predictions about future chemical inputs, river quality and biodiversity, with future scenarios based on a range of possible changes in society and climate. 

Principal investigator Dr Victoria Bell of UKCEH explains: “Our modelling will enable us to provide a range of projections for river catchments across the UK which will support policy-makers in developing plans for adaptation, mitigation and detection of risks associated with future changes in water quality.”

The project, Long-term and Large-scale Freshwater Ecosystems (LTLS-FE), also involves Cardiff University, British Geological Survey (BGS), Rothamsted Research and Bowburn Consultancy. It will receive around £2 million over four years from NERC and Defra's Understanding changes in quality of UK Freshwaters programme.  

Meanwhile, a separate project led by Dr Daniel Read of UKCEH will focus on understanding the link between the sources of chemical pollutants and their pathways, fate, and ecological impacts in freshwater ecosystems. There will be an emphasis on investigating the impacts on freshwater microbes and the ecosystem functions they perform. 

“We will identify chemical pollutants that can modify the structure and function of freshwater ecosystems, develop models to predict the scale of the threats they pose, and work with regulatory, industry and charity partners to develop solutions to manage the impacts of chemicals on freshwaters,” says Dr Read.

The research, which will use the River Thames and Bristol Avon catchments as case studies, and will include an investigation into how chemicals in sewage effluent from wastewater treatment works impact upon freshwater microbial ecology. The research, which will use the River Thames and Bristol Avon catchments as case studies, will include an investigation into how chemicals in sewage from local wastewater treatment works impact upon ecosystems. 

The project, Pathways of chemicals into freshwaters and their ecological Impacts (PACIFIC), will receive almost £1.8 million over four years. UKCEH’s partners are University of Bath, the University of Oxford and the Environment Agency.

UKCEH is also part of a £2 million project led by University of Stirling that will explore how pollution and climate change are impacting freshwater ecosystems, to inform priorities for policy, regulation and investment. Researchers will use cutting-edge data analysis to improve our understanding of the impact of cocktail of pollutants from rural and urban sources interact with rivers and ecosystems, using the River Almond, Lothian, as a case study. They will devise a system to monitor and measure pollution. 

Details of all the research projects funded as part of the Understanding changes in quality of UK Freshwaters programme are on the UKRI website.