Making the most of the floods: gathering data to help prevent future flooding & pollution

If you live in the UK you’ll have noticed the storms over the last few weeks. The humble River Mole even made it onto the national news on Christmas eve as homes and businesses were flooded, and people left without power for days. The flooding is not just a human tragedy. Heavy rains, winds and floods increase pollution, and rising water levels can be fatal for riverside dwellers. That’s why, on the 5th January, in the rain, I donned my wellies and high vis jacket, and headed out along the river.

I’m one of Surrey Wildlife Trust’s volunteer river wardens, as part of RiverSearch. The scheme is a great idea – volunteers are allocated a stretch of river, and regularly monitor it for pollution, non-native invasive species and species like otters.

I’m ashamed to admit that since I did my training last autumn, I’d yet to do my first real survey. So when the email came from the coordinator, urging us to get out along rivers looking for pollution and flooding, I knew I had to act. I wouldn’t normally choose a rainy January afternoon for a stroll, nor a route along a river that has recently flooded. But those conditions do provide an excellent opportunity to spot where rivers are getting polluted from run-off from farmland or roads, and other sources of pollution.

Urban point source pollutionWater levels have receded on Pipp BrookSo off I set, armed with a camera, clipboard, gps and intrepid stick, and kindly accompanied by Dr C. In all, we covered just under 5 miles, although not all of that was along the river. Along Pipp Brook there were lots of places where urban run-off was entering the stream. The water level in the mill stream had fallen a couple of feet from the previous afternoon, but it was still much higher than normal. There were also lots of plastic bags and other debris stranded on overhanging branches, washed there by the high water or blown by the wind.

Spot the stepping stones?Out of town, by the Mole, the water level had receded a lot since Christmas, but was still flooding the bankside field and woods. There was no sign of the Stepping Stones at the foot of Box Hill.

The River Mole bursting its banksThe water was a murky brown from the washed-in mud, and visibility in the river must be close to zero. I felt sorry for the kingfisher I glimpsed zooming past, as hunting must be difficult in these conditions. Water voles can also be badly affected by flooding, as their bankside burrows can get flooded with the rising water. The additional nutrients washed into rivers are bad news for fish (and those creatures that depend on fish), as it can deplete oxygen levels in the water.

Hopefully the data gathered by the volunteer River Wardens can help to identify ways to reduce pollution and flooding along Surrey’s rivers for the future. And hopefully the weather will improve quickly to give all those (human and animal) who live by rivers and the sea a chance to recover.

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