Health of the River Ure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Above: Charlotte Simons of Yorkshire Dales River Trust addressing the meeting

Some key points from the meeting at Leyburn Methodist Church Hall on Tuesday April 30.

We need to set up our own group of citizen scientists with its own committee. That’s why I have been working on a confidential (BCC) email address  list of all those who have expressed an interest, with the aim of organising another meeting.

We need to work with the Yorkshire Dales River Trust and with Yorkshire Water’s River Health Improvement team to ensure that any water testing we do will be fully accredited and accepted by the Environment Agency.

Here is a more detailed report on the speeches and questions at that meeting:

Alastair Dinsdale, chairman of the Association of Rural Communities (ARC)

Welcome and introduction:

I have lived alongside the River Ure, and its tributary Ellerbeck, all of my life.  I remember my fifth birthday party, playing in the stream and I spent many years exploring and fishing the Ure.

But I have noticed a gradual decline in the health of the river over the years, particularly in the summer months as flow rates decline.  Algae and sediments have choked out the gravels and it’s now very difficult to find a caddisfly fly larvae, a bullhead stickleback or even a minnow.  Crayfish, which were so abundant at one time, are now are almost non-existent.

But why?

In the winter months we see more frequent and much larger flooding of the river.  This winter brought the highest flood level at Wath bridge that I have seen in my whole lifetime, and the flood water barely fit under Aysgarth Yore Mills bridge.

Climate change is real and is happening.

Agriculture, which is often blamed, is in decline in the upper dale with a huge reduction in the numbers of sheep and cattle post the foot and mouth disease outbreak, plus soil health and nutrient management are improving at a pace.

On the flip side, more land is being covered in concrete, tarmac and hard surfacing, for roads, car parks, driveways, caravan sites and similar development making flash flooding much quicker.

Sewage and water treatment plants are inadequate and out-dated as they have not kept pace with house building and summer time loading. In droughts and very low flow periods a significant amount of the flow in the river has been through a sewerage system, raising temperatures and picking up nutrients. This, combined with further warming in low flow pools, is making the water toxic to river life.

Once upon a time the dales were served by local spring water supplies but nationalisation changed all that and now water falling in the upper catchment runs down the river picking up all sorts of nasties before it is drawn out at Kilgram Bridge, stored at Thornton Steward, cleaned and pumped back to the top of the dale.  It is stupid and I hate telling people how ridiculous it is.

Surely storing water in reservoirs, lakes and ponds in the upper catchment would alleviate the peaks of flooding and be there to drink or release into the river to cool and keep the river live?  It happens for the Tyne and Tees, why not here?

When ARC decided to support Aysgarth and District Parish Council in objecting to a holiday lodge development overlooking Aysgarth Falls, despite raising significant concerns that the proposed development with its associated hot tubs was likely to overwhelm the existing sewerage system, the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority’s (YDNPA) planning committee voted to grant permission and stated that they didn’t need to consider the impact on the river within their remit as a planning authority.

I guess that is the same with planning authorities elsewhere in the country.  How is this a sensible way forward?  We know the water companies are failing to invest and update the infrastructure.  Local authorities need to develop an integrated approach to planning and its impact on the environment, including the rivers.  What is required is change.

We want tonight to be positive and bring about accountability and change.  We need a strong group of people to monitor the state of the river, and we need to lobby to improve things before the River Ure becomes the Wensleydale sewer.

Charlotte Simons , Senior Project Manager, Yorkshire Dales River Trust, and its lead for its Wharfe Catchment Management Plan

She said that in England the main sources of pollution were: agriculture and fishing in rural areas; sewage and waste water; and diffuse pollutions such as the run-off from urban areas

The River Ure is 74 miles long with its source at Ure Head with 38 water bodies across two operational catchments before it flows into  the River Ouse. Citizens’ science came into play, she said, when people wanted to find out what the main sources of pollution were, what was causing them and how to improve the situation.

The Yorkshire Dales River Trust (YDRT) had started working with volunteers along the River Wharfe and it was the first inland water body to gain bathing water status, thanks to a large scale citizens’ science monitoring programme. The volunteers  had taken water samples along the whole length of the river and set up an accredited  citizens’ science framework. A report has been submitted by the Environment Agency. The Trust has a community data sharing platform and wants to extend this to not just the Wharfe but the Swale, the Ure and the Ouse, she said.

She continued: Such a project helped communities to influence decision making about their river. ‘You can’t always guarantee that this will happen but there’s been an awful lot of changes along the Wharfe because of the results coming out.’

She explained that on the mornings when volunteers tested water from one end of the Wharfe to the other, two sets of samples were taken: one to be tested for nutrients (phosphates) and the other for bacteria. This was because bacteria samples must be tested more quickly than those for nutrients. There had been two days of water sampling – one on a wet day and the other on a dry day. The tributaries were also included. In that way an overall picture of the health of the river could be ascertained.

‘The lessons we have learnt:  its best to look at the whole river and under different conditions – high flow and low flow. If you want to do advocacy you need to ensure you have got accurate and credible results. You need to make sure  you are following the protocol that is accepted by the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water.

‘But before you do all that you need to be clear about what questions you are asking – what do you want to find out about the river. Because there are different ways to find out different things And then you match  your testing methods to the questions you want to ask .’

She added: ‘Citizen scientists are worth their weight in gold – we can’t do [this] without support of people in the community and without your interest on the ground.

‘What can we all do for our rivers? Be aware of the issues – raise awareness. Get to know [your river]  know your own stretch. If it doesn’t look right report it to the Environment Agency . Be more concerned as a consumer. Think before you put something down the drain.’

She emphasised that wet wipes must not be flushed down  toilets or put down drains as these combined with fat to create fat balls – which were costly to clear.

To a question, she responded that the pollution of rivers had increased since the 1980s and there was more than one source. One factor was the impact of pharmaceutical and personal care products which were entering rivers and tributaries from other sources, not just sewage works, such as sun screens when people were swimming.

Hannah Fawcett – YDNPA Farm Conservation Advisor/Catchment Sensitive Farming

She explained that catchment assisted farming was a national Defra and Natural England scheme administered in the National Park by the YDNPA.  She had worked on the Semerwater catchment scheme for ten years during which time biodiversity had increased.

The Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) team offers a range of help to those farmers who contacted it for  help and advice. The team could help with applying for grants through the national countryside stewardship scheme and could obtain specialist advice from a national consultancy.

The team worked  with farmers to reduce  phosphates and sediment in the Ure and its tributaries and reducing contact between livestock and water courses..  There were grants available for water quality work such as for putting in new drainage to separate clean and dirty water. But she warned that these were not 100 per cent grants and that could be a barrier to getting work done.

Clare Beasant – Yorkshire Water’s River Health Improvement Manager

She reported that the  River Health Improvement team had come into being on January 15 this year as Yorkshire Water wanted a more proactive response to working with people across Yorkshire.

‘What we don’t do is talk to people enough, and what we don’t do is listen to people enough. And that’s why we are really excited about being here tonight, ‘  she told the meeting.

She explained that what they wanted to do over the next five years was to have continuous water course monitoring of the Ure to get a good picture over its whole length.  YW wanted to work with citizens’ science teams to find out where the issues were. It also wanted to understand why waste treatment works were not operating as people would want them to and resolve problems, she said.

As the river health improvement team was quite small they did need to work with communities. ‘We can’t do it on our own. We really need your support as local groups like this and citizens’ science can help us build up that picture. We don’t have the resources  [to do all the water sampling] and so any help is fantastic. We want to be involved and we want to support you as much as we can.’

This, she said,  would include offering to cover the high cost of the water sampling kits and analysis, the latter being carried out by an independent laboratory.

Report from Mashamshire Litter Busters

Read at the meeting: We are a team of about eight volunteers that do our best to collect litter in an area centred on Masham, every week and obviously patrolling the bank and the Burn.  The Town street drains we are certain mostly drain to the Ure carrying litter – except that we hope we catch just some of it before it goes down the drains.    We sometimes patrol up river towards Marfield and down towards West Tanfield.   We are supported by Masham Parish Council who pay for our public liability insurance, high vis vests and grabbers.

If we had sufficient funds and influence I think it would be a revelation to install one of those large nets in the Ure that traps litter and transport it into Masham Market Square for all to see!  Or even at the outlets where street drains end

Nicholas Copes  read a report about the survey carried out for the Wild Trout Trust by Prof J Grey. This had shown that in some of the becks around Hawes there are very few young fish in the spawning grounds.

On his advisory visit in 2021 Prof Grey had reported: ‘Smaller tributaries are of disproportionate importance for the wild fish populations at spawning and nursery areas because of a lack of such habitat in the larger channels. While they are subject to the same environment stressors, restoration measures can achieve notable and quick results because of the smaller scale of such systems.  He noted that diffuse pollution sources of silt/soil ingress was apparent wherever livestock had access to the banks.

Hawes and High Abbotside Angling Association invested in the fish population survey of six tributaries of the Upper Ure, undertaken by Prof Grey, and has been allocated funds towards a river bank protection project  when landowner agreement has been secured.

Eddie Wyvill , the chairman of the Yorkshire Dales Salmon Group, told the meeting that he was also born in Wensleydale but in the last ten to fifteen years had seen changes which had had a massive impact upon the landscape with a direct correlation with the quality of water in the river.

He said: ‘The Yorkshire Dales was one of the strongholds of [hay] meadows. They used to be full of different kinds of grasses and full of flowers.

‘What makes a river? It’s not you and I swimming in it or canoeing in it. It’s what lives in it. And that’s the fish and the insects and that all has to work side by side. But now, due to intensive dairy farming, particularly in Coverdale, many of the hay meadows have been replaced with rye grass, a monoculture with no insects.’

He added that the fields of rye grass were sprayed with slurry and cut five times a year. ‘Just before heavy rainfall down the slurry tankers come, the whole Dale stinks …. I spoke to one of the farmers [who sprayed] 1,500 litres of slurry per acre per cut. That’s eight and a half thousand litres of slurry per acre. And some are doing it down by the River Ure – on the flood plain.

‘What is the National Park going to do about land use and about the dairy intensity? ‘ He believed  that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority  (YDNPA) should be held accountable for land use in the Dale.

Hannah Fawcett, the YDNPA farm conservation advisor, pointed out that the Authority owns less than one per cent of the land in the national park. She and the Authority’s Catchment Sensitive Farming team, therefore, works with private landowners and farmers by offering advice  when requested.

She believed there were less cows in Wensleydale now but what had changed was the way they were managed. ‘We recognise that and we work with  dairy farmers …concerning farming in protected landscapes.’

She said there was a whole sweep of priority habitats in the National Park which were nationally and internationally important. ‘We are working with Natural England and the Environment Agency to protect those habitats and to restore them where possible.

Alastair Dinsdale said it was the changing economics of dairy farming which had led to the creation of bigger farms. There was also a problem with the wetter weather so that the animals were housed in barns for longer.  Even sheep farmers were finding the winter weather no longer fit to keep livestock outside. He pointed out that there were legal rules about what could be spread on farm fields. The fields were supposed to be tested to check exactly what nutrients were necessary before anything was spread on them.

Richard Loukota  from Thornton Rust told the meeting that according to the Environment Agency  there had been 11,612 hours of discharge of untreated sewage during 2023 as compared to 4,370 hours in 2022. This, he said, was an increase of 160 per cent.  There had been discharges for 3,233 hours in 2023 from the treatment plant between Leyburn and Harmby, he added.   The rivers, he said, are ranked and the River Ure comes 57. ‘Which doesn’t sound too bad until you realise that is 57 out of over 4,000.  He wondered  how much Yorkshire Water would spend on the River Ure and its tributaries out of the £180 million it plans to spend in this region.

Neil Smeeton, who lives at West Burton, spoke on behalf of Burton cum Walden Parish Council. He described how upset he was to see visitors allowing their children play in Bishopdale Beck.

He reported that in 2022 the sewage treatment plant at West Burton discharged untreated sewage on 138 separate days for a total of 1,079 hours. And it was only slightly better in 2023. He said:  ‘West Burton sewage treatment plant was the worst for days of discharging untreated sewage in the whole River  Ure catchment area  all the way from Hawes right down to Ripon.  And 29th worst  of all the 2,224 similar plants in the whole of Yorkshire Water area.

‘The farmer who owns the field with the outfall pipe tells me that the bank by the pipe can become so disgusting that he has to contact Yorkshire Water to come and clean it to protect his stock. A fisherman in West Burton told me that the area around the outfall pipe is often surrounded by human waste, wet wipes, condoms, sanitary products and  sometimes it just stinks.

‘Burton cum Walden Parish Council has asked Yorkshire Water to increase the storage capacity of our local treatment plant so no untreated  sewage has to be pumped straight into our beautiful Bishopdale Beck. Untreated sewage only adds to the beck’s problems from Thoralby’s treatment plant upstream.’

He and others reported on the considerable decrease in the number of fish especially in the breeding areas along the becks near Hawes.

Nathan Lawson, Partnership and Community Engagement Advisor for the YW’s River Health Improvement Team –

Apologised for what had happened at some treatment works and said  the operations team would be asked to investigate.   He assured the meeting that Yorkshire Water would follow up on these reports and expected to have funding available next year.

Robert Loukota –  reported that planning permission had just been granted for 122 houses and 27 bunagallows off Moor Road in Leyburn. But the Harmby/Leyburn treatment plant can’t cope now let alone if there are 149 more dwellings.

Clare Beasant – explained that Yorkshire Water does not give its approval for a new  housing development now unless the surface water is to be kept separate from the foul water, thus decreasing the additional  input into sewage treatment works.

One member of the audience said that if the input into a treatment plant was being increased then the size of the treatment plant should also be increased.

Ms Beasant responded that all treatment works were built with extra capacity based on the likely increase in the number of houses.

Alastair Dinsdale commented  that he could not remember when the Middleham sewage treatment  was updated.   And someone responded ‘In the 1970s.’

Ms Beasant responded that the plant at Middleham was included in the present investigations .

Marjorie Iveson said that the treatment plant for Leyburn had been built on land she and her husband had owned.  She said the land around it was full of streams. They had been approached  that week as Yorkshire Water wanted to acquire more land to extend the treatment plant.

Juliet Maddan -said that water was a very precious source, and Water Authorities were charging more and more. The latter were treating the water with chemicals, such as chlorine, which then goes into the rivers. ‘I think Water Companies need to start being honest about what’s going into our water.’ She said there were other ways of making water cleaner and palatable.

Alastair Dinsdale referred again to the decision of the YDNPA planning committee  in October and to the issue of more housing at Leyburn.  He asked if it was right for planning permission to be given before it could be shown there was adequate sewage treatment facilities. ‘We desperately need housing in the dales but I think we need to change the process,’ he said.

North Yorkshire Cllr Yvonne Peacock  Said she had agreed with Alastair at the planning committee meeting when the lodges at Aysgarth Falls Hotel were discussed.

She said that although the recommendations  of  a Highways Authority could be over ruled by a planning committee she was not sure if could over rule those of Water Companies. She would ask about that – and how the concerns expressed at the meeting could be raised during the discussions on the YDNPA’s new local plan.

‘We ought to see if we can actually over rule a planning application based on the fact that [it would] affect the river. We don’t want those houses until [sufficient sewage treatment] is in place – or make sure that the treatment plants are [updated] first.’She added that when bungalows were being built in Bainbridge in the 1970s they were told that the sewage system was good enough.  And since then there have been a  lot more new buildings. ‘It’s an excellent question Alastair and I will follow  it up,’ she said.

Pip Pointon, administrative officer of the Association of Rural Communities – ‘We want to move on, and set up a group that’s going to do similar to what had been reported concerning the River Wharfe. Because without the evidence we are going to get nowhere. And we need the guidance to do it properly.

She thanked Ms Beasant for the news that Yorkshire Water would finance the cost of sample kits and testing. Pip added: ‘Just a warning – the Association of Rural Communities has been the catalyst, has sponsored this meeting. But it is going to depend upon those among you that a group is formed  and has its own committee. That  will be separate from our association. I really do hope that comes about. ‘

Alastair added ‘ We will be really pleased if you form a strong and powerful group that will bring about the changes we all need.’

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