Water-blitz dates for 2017 are 2nd May & 2nd October
Oxfordshire’s landscape is defined by its river network, including eight major rivers (Leach, Windrush, Evenlode, Glyme, Cherwell, Oxon Ray, Ock, and Thame) and many smaller tributaries that flow through the county and into the Thames. Rivers and streams in semi-natural landscapes are typically associated with complexes of wetland habitats including floodplain wetlands, fens, wet grassland, oxbow lakes, permanent and temporary ponds and wet woodland. Along with two canals, the Oxford Canal and the Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal, these freshwater systems are arguably our most fundamental ecosystem.
Oxfordshire’s wetland habitats are of great importance for a range of plant and animal species, with waterside habitats providing some of the richest environments for wildlife. Unfortunately, many of these habitats are in a degraded state, and although our rivers are generally much cleaner than they were 30 years ago, which has aided the recovery of generalist species such as otter Lutra lutra, those species requiring a higher standard of water quality, such as tassel stonewort and Desmoulin’s whorl snail, are still suffering declines in many places.
The ecological health of rivers is based on a range of factors, one of which is nutrients in the form of phosphates and nitrates. It is important to understand the interplay between the different nutrients and other environmental factors that can influence water quality, factors that may vary seasonally.
What is the Water-Blitz?
In September 2015 Wild Oxfordshire and the Environment Agency (EA) initiated a partnership with EarthWatch, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH), , Freshwater Habitats Trust, and Thames Water among others, launching what was probably the first ‘WaterBlitz’ across the River Thames catchment. As per a BioBlitz, the intention was to empower citizen scientists to collect as many nitrate and phosphate measurements as possible from a defined area (in this case the Thames river basin) within a 24 hour period.
Scientists from the EA and CEH carry out regular testing of water-quality of the main river Thames, but more detailed mapping of water quality across the wider river basin is needed to improve the protection and enhancement of important local fresh-water habitats. The benefit of collecting this data within a 24 hour period is that it enables comparisons to be made over time at different sites, whether that’s a small tributary of the Evenlode or the Thames at Lechlade. Repeat testing the same sites, at different times, over a period of years, will help the EA and research bodies better understand some of the linkages between these nutrient levels, other varying environmental factors, and the ecological health of our freshwater systems. It also, importantly, contributes to the wider Freshwater Watch initiative.
Two successful Thames-wide pilots were led by Wild Oxfordshire and Earthwatch, in 2015 and early 2016. Hundreds of citizen scientists used simple water-testing kits, provided free-of-charge, to collect nitrate and phosphate measurements from sources (springs), pathways (ditches, brooks, streams) and receptors (rivers), and results uploaded to Earthwatch’s Freshwater Watch hub. Following the success of the Thames-wide event, the mantle is now being taken-up by individual organisations in their own areas within and outside of Oxfordshire across the river basin stretching into Greater London, and Wild Oxfordshire is focusing its efforts on supporting citizen scientists in the Oxfordshire area.
Funding for the test kits has come from a variety of sources over the years, and we are particularity grateful to the Garfield Weston Trust, Thames Water, Cherwell District Council and Freshwater Habitats Trust. This partnership and open source data approach is developing a powerful data resource for researchers and educators, and is being adopted a model of engagement by other catchment partnerships across the country.
The aims of the Water-Blitz are:
- Inspire – Inspire and enthuse people of all ages and backgrounds to get out, have fun and interact with their natural environment. The use of up-to-date technology such as phone apps and an interactive map engages younger audiences
- Increase understanding of science – Increase public understanding of and involvement in scientific research
- Increase appreciation of environment – Increase public understanding of the threats posed by pollution of the water environment to the wildlife and local communities it supports
- Stimulate – Stimulate discussion about freshwater ecology and resources in the light of increasing population and climate-change pressures
- Generate useful data – Generate data that can be used by scientists, schools, catchment partnerships, land managers, agencies, policy-makers, utility companies and local communities