The River Kit in East Devon flows to the east down from the Blackdown Hills into the River Axe – just as the River Culm flows to the west down from the AONB to join the River Exe. The Kit, at 6 miles long, is much shorter than the Culm but a local group has recently stepped up local action to tackle its problems, which are very similar to those on the Culm. Much of the following article was written by Vicky Whitworth of Chardstock Eco Group and published in West Country Voices. We wanted to share it here as it’s such a great example of local action that has inspired us and shows how grassroots activism can make a difference.
“It’s 2063. I’m splashing in the river, laughing at the sparkling bubbles, rolling in the water, gulping in great mouthfuls, feeling the water crowfoot wrap round my legs. Only it’s not me. I’ll be over the Styx by then.
2063 is the now the date when the government reckons it will have cleaned up our rivers. [The date was quietly moved back from 2027 on the last day before the Christmas holidays…Ed] 2063 is 40 years from now. What does this tell us? That it’s a massive job that will take nearly half a century? Or is it a case of mañana? Because this isn’t a target, it’s a dream. A dim and distant dream.
It’s true our rivers are in a pitiful state. Environment Agency data shows that every river in England fails for harmful chemicals in the water, and just 14 per cent reach good ecological status. Our rivers are chemically, ecologically and hydraulically knackered. They’ve been dumped in, pumped dry, straitjacketed so that the sad slick of what remains has nowhere to go but fast-forward into homes built on floodplains.
Take the River Axe, described in late Victorian times as, ‘one of the most beautiful and interesting of the sparkling trout streams which contribute much to the claims of Devonshire to be the Arcadia of England’. Now the River Axe Special Area of Conservation is in unfavourable condition and is declining owing to nutrient enrichment (excessive levels of phosphates and nitrates) and sediment pollution that has led to a number of ecological problems, including habitat loss and a crash in fish species. Not my words, but those of the Environment Agency.
It’s so bad on the Axe that Natural England has stepped in and pressured local authorities into pausing housing development while they work out how to build hundreds of new houses without making the problem worse. The trouble is this isn’t about avoiding making the problem worse: it’s supposed to be about making things better. With this shoddy thinking you can see why the target is so far in the future.
Go and look at the River Lim in Lyme Regis – playground of family holidays – and spot the Council signs telling people not to paddle in the stream. Watch sewage float down to the river mouth. See the kiddies playing in the sea.
Or my river – the unremarkable Kit Brook. Six miles of fast-flowing stream scooting through the rural Blackdown Hills before joining the River Axe. Not so long ago the Kit Brook was described as an oasis of water quality and showcased what a river should be like. Now – like her big sister, the Axe – she’s in decline. But there is a feeling that business as usual cannot continue.
A lot of well-researched reports have been written about the River Axe and her tributaries. Everyone knows what the problems are. There’s numbers and science and money and blame and misbehaviour and ignorance and all those things – but at the heart of it is a people problem, and that’s where the solution lies.