Tuesday, May 1, 2007

RBAG: the first two years

5th January 2007: here is an article produced for a magazine on the Ruscombe Brook Action Group project. Sadly we lost our original website started in 2006 however we do still retain much of the info in paper form including most of the incidents but not all the photos of incidents!

Ruscombe Brook: building a partnership, fighting the fat and more!

Our local brook near Stroud, Gloucestershire is less than 2 miles long and I never dreamt I would learn so much about water when I first helped set up the Ruscombe Brook Action Group (RBAG) two years ago.

I had discovered that raw sewage was repeatedly overflowing from local sewers into the brook and surrounding farmland. Children play by the stream, cattle feed on the grass and dogs are walked in the fields. I thought it would be fairly easy to put a stop to this health hazard and improve the brook. I soon realised it was a lot more complicated.

One of the biggest initial challenges was in trying to establish the causes of the poor water quality. It wasn't just sewers that were the problem: the situation was far more complex and compounded by the extraordinary fact that sewage can in many instances be legally discharged into brooks and rivers. Amazingly there is not even a proper public health standard of water quality for local brooks.

We started in the brook group by trying to educate ourselves. We were fortunate to have several local water experts including the District Councils Drainage Officer, who talked and engaged with our group at our regular monthly meetings. Here is what we've been up to:

- A clean-up day produced dozens of bags of rubbish including two buckets of sanitary wear!
- Publicising our activities in the press along with mapping, photographing and recording the problems. We found that many incidents in the past had not been reported to authorities so they were not aware of the full extent of the impact of the problems.
- Talking to local groups and schools to raise awareness and build our collection of memories of the brook from years gone by: one group painted a 15 meter mural of the brook at a school and one one class got involved in testing the water quality.
- Organised a conference which was attended by 70 local people and various local authorities
- Encouraging the Environment Agency to do more water quality testing
- Working with British Waterways and local Parish Councils over plans to dredge a lake (situated almost at the end of the brook). Reedbeds are currently being installed there as part of a £35,000 project to improve the water quality before it goes into the canal which is just beginning a multi-million pound restoration.
- Organised a specialist seminar on the brook for over 25 people.
- Started to consider the impact of cattle and salt grit bins. Cattle can add to the silt problems by churning up the brook and the grit bins have been regularly overturned leading to additional contamination to the brook.
- Met and worked with Severn Trent (the local water company) to see how the local sewer system can be improved: already we have seen some sewer pipes replaced, considerable root cutting in sewers and pipe misconnections being tackled. It is has been surprising to learn how many washing machines are misconnected and go straight into the brook. Severn Trent are now planning further works in the area.
- Meeting university researchers to discuss projects to look at how water quality can be improved.
- Discussed with health professionals about the potential dangers of raw sewage.
- Severn Trent have agreed to do a joint leaflet later this year to raise awareness of issues locally.

Next steps

Perhaps the most important step we are taking at the moment is to set up a more formal partnership of ‘stakeholders’ to find lasting solutions for the brook. The group has always believed a partnership approach is the best way to achieve our aims to improve water quality and biodiversity. We have already had some initial meetings about how best to do this. We hope soon to be able to formalise the partnership and move forward with land owners, Severn Trent water, British Waterways, local Councils and other interested bodies.

We were fortunate to have members of the Bourne Stream Partnership come to Stroud to give us some key advice on how to move forward. They have already established a partnership of key agencies in Dorset and have embarked on a considerable programme of works to the Bourne Stream.

RBAG have just had the generous offer of £3,000 seed funding from a local group, Water21, that promotes and provides sustainable solutions for water and sewage. If we get agreement from other parties they will embark on an initial project with us to assess what are the best options available for the brook and look at some estimated costs. We hope to consider the suitability of reed beds, restoring mill ponds and look at whether private sewer outflows should be improved. We will also look at sewer capacity and how best to encourage householders to stop roof and other surface run-off from going into sewers and indeed whether it might be possible to treat some of the householders sewage in the area.

After this we can then look at priorities and seek funding for particular projects. Our hope is to sort out some of the problems in our area and use it as a model for other local river courses. Sadly the reality is that most streams in the country face many problems that are not dissimilar from those here in Ruscombe - many also face additional problems like the runoff of pesticides and herbicides.

Help fight the fat!

One problem common to many sewers is fat and other 'discarded' items. Sewers just weren't designed for many of the challenges that are presented today: cotton buds, sanitary products and cooking fats all help clog the sewers and can contribute to problems like the overflowing sewage. It is also true that many of the detergents we use for ourselves, dishes and laundry contain oils, fats and phosphates that can add to the problems.

Our latest local campaign has seen us at local schools and knocking on doors with a leaflet urging people to:

(i) Put fat in with household waste or use a ‘fat trap’. RBAG have been given a 150 of these traps by Severn Trent to encourage people not to put fats down the sewer - but basically an old yoghurt pot would do and can be used to make a fat ball to hang out for the birds.

(ii) Use environmentally friendly detergents or better still consider detergent-free laundry balls. Stroud-based Ecotopia helped with our leaflet printing costs and also gave members money off the laundry balls (See: http://ecotopia.co.uk ).

National picture

Awareness of the need to improve our local waterways is growing. There are now quite a number of local groups around the country. The UK Rivers Network, which sadly does not appear to be contactable at the moment, lists some of the groups on their website. One good example of a project not listed is the River Quaggy in South East London where flood protection and biodiversity have both been improved significantly.

There are also big national projects like the WWF's "Better River Basins" and the national advisory group, the "River Restoration Centre".

Sadly in many areas people are still not aware of their local waterways and even where there is an awareness they are not always seeking the most sustainable solutions. One local group for example wants to see a brook put into concrete culverts to stop the flooding.

Challenges ahead

RBAG have only just begun on the journey to improve our brook. We are still learning much, but the more we understand the more we can see the importance and urgency of getting this right.

Climate change is set to bring increasingly more challenges: more extreme weather conditions and sea level rises will lead to more flooding while we also need to look at reducing the very significant amount of fossil fuels currently used to pump and treat water and sewage. Sustainable solutions like reed beds not only give a biomass crop each year but also can produce water of higher quality than most sewage treatment plants. It is vital we start to use these cost effective, well-proven techniques or we will see the problems only getting worse.

Our group has written to Government Ministers as their plans to develop sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) more widely seem to have stalled. Severn Trent report that each year 4% more of their region is covered with hard standing areas. This can only lead to further flooding and other problems in the future.

The Government have started to introduce policies to tackle flooding and potential water shortages but are not moving anything like fast enough. For example the new Code for Sustainable Homes is voluntary instead of mandatory and homes continue to be built without 'greywater' systems even in areas with current chronic water shortages like the South-East. This is little short of madness.

The health implications of raw sewage in our waterways is another challenge. Last year the Environment Agency found a third of male fish in English rivers are changing sex due to pollution from the contraceptive pill and HRT. The Research Professor noted that there was "the potential for it to have an effect in humans - and possibly a marked effect."

Surfers Against Sewage have also drawn our attention to some of the potential dangers of sewage but too readily such concerns have been cast aside as not important. A local university research project has been established to look at this whole issue further. Some senior doctors have recently suggested that sewage could be responsible for many more serious illnesses than it has been given credit for in the past.

RBAG can see there are many challenges ahead. We would welcome people along to our meetings. Please call or email me for further information.

Philip Booth is Secretary of the Ruscombe Brook Action Group, a Stroud District councillor and spokesperson for Gloucestershire Green parties.

Lark Rise, Bread Street, Ruscombe, Stroud, Glos. GL6 6EL
Tel: 01453 755451 E-mail: philip.booth2(at)virgin.net

Further information from:
- Ruscombe Brook Action Group (planned revamp mid-January) http://www.rbag.org.uk
- Bourne Stream Partnership
- Water 21 website soon to be developed
- Surfers Against Sewage
- UK Rivers Network
- Better River Basins http://betterriverbasins.wwf.org.uk
- The River Restoration Centre
- Quaggy Waterways Action Group