A healthy river supports a diverse array of life forms, forming intricate river ecosystems. Not just fish, plants, insects and animals, but people too, thrive by the riverbanks! As our lives have become more urban and less in tune with nature, it’s very easy to forget just how dependent we are on our waterways, but having healthy rivers, lakes and streams is really important.
They are the source of our drinking water, crucial for food production and support an enormous amount of biodiversity. Riverside plants provide very important but often overlooked drainage which is becoming ever more important in our changing climate.
We’re now really coming to appreciate the health and wellbeing benefits afforded by our waterways with the increasing popularity of boating, kayaking, wild swimming and many other aquatic activities which both enhance our own health and also boost our local tourism. But all of these things are only possible if our waterways are clean and healthy. So…what makes for a healthy river?
The first and most important thing is the quality of the water. If we pollute our rivers and lakes we can’t expect to have clean drinking water and bathing water and healthy ecosystems but fortunately there are many simple things we can do to help our waterways which will make a real difference, like being conscious that whatever cleaning product we pour down the drain and whatever chemical we use in the garden ultimately goes into our water system…the same system that provides our drinking water!
Shockingly, almost half of Ireland’s rivers have unsatisfactory water quality levels, with nitrogen and phosphorus from agriculture and urban wastewater discharge being the most significant pollutants.
Too much nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilisers and wastewater lead to too much algae (ever see those unsightly algal blooms in the water which would make you think twice about a dip?) which ultimately reduces oxygen in the water, suffocating the fish.
It’s important that we support organisations like the Rivers Trust, of which our local Nore river is a member, as they have the data, expertise and experience we need to learn how best to clean up our waterways.
Simple things like learning how to tackle invasive species, join river clean-ups and carry out water sampling can make a big difference to the health of our rivers.
Are you aware that, since 1970, there has been an alarming 83% decline in freshwater species globally, a rate faster than any other type of habitat? Yes, 83%! This drastic change in a relatively short span of time could spell disaster for many of our iconic and cherished species like the Atlantic Salmon and the spectacular Kingfisher if this trend continues unabated.
As well as pollution and other man made factors, invasive species have played a big role in this decline. Himalayan Balsam sounds delightful, much more so than Giant Hogweed, but the reality is both of these plants and many more now pose a real threat to our streams and rivers. Think of them as ruthless invaders who compete for resources and stamp out the local native species.
It’s time for us to get serious about our river “biosecurity” and join forces to identify and eliminate these dangerous plants. Simple measures like checking, cleaning and disinfecting our clothing and equipment after use in the water can stop us helping these invaders to spread around our waterways.
A healthy river is one that can be enjoyed by everyone, whether you’re a jogger or dog-walker on the tow-path, a kayaker on the rapids or a hardy year-round swimmer. In recent years we’ve all gained an appreciation of our local landscape and the many amenities it has to offer. Local watersports activities have never been more popular, from kayaking on the Suir to cruising on the Shannon, wild swimming in Lough Hyne to sailing on Lough Erne.
Our coastal and inland waterways, rich in history, heritage and folklore have always been attractive to tourists and are increasingly appreciated for the fun and adventure they can offer, but only if the water is clean!
Some simple things we can all do to help keep our waterways healthy are:
- Be mindful of what we’re pouring down the sink and into our drains – think twice before using highly toxic cleaning products, garden fertilisers and pesticides. Try more natural alternatives and remember that verything we pour down the drain will ultimately end up in our water system!
- Dispose of medicines safely – a simple thing like returning unused medicines to the pharmacy is quite important. Whatever you do don’t flush them down the loo!
- There’s strength in numbers so why not start or join a local group? Taking part in local community groups doing beach, stream or wetland clean-up’s is a great way to give something back to nature, meet new people and do something really positive for the community where you can see an immediate improvement in your locality.
- Citizen science projects such as “kick sampling” might sound complex but in fact they’re really simple ways to monitor the water quality and identify sources of pollution. They’re also fantastic ways to connect with the community while having fun and learning all about the tiny creatures that call our waterways home.
- Learn more about our rivers – if you want to learn more about our waterways and what you can do to help keep them clean, why not take a short course at Waterways College? We offer blended learning ecology classes for all!
- Most importantly, get out there and enjoy our waterways! Next time you pass by a river or stream, stop and consider what you can see and hear around you. Do you recognise any of our river plants? Can you spot the alien invaders?! The more connected we are with our rivers the more we’ll all work to protect these precious ecosystems.