Nov 11, 2021 | Blog

Body of Water: a water quality workshop day

Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal-each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water.
― Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us, 1951

Body Of Water is an exploration of water quality and water monitoring on the Exe estuary and coast. In Summer we held a creative lab where 19 people from the local community, researchers and organisations gathered to share different perspectives and generate ideas for working together in the future. We identified problems and started to explore ways to address them collaboratively.

Why is water quality and water monitoring important?

Over recent years statutory monitoring by the Environment Agency of water bodies has reduced substantially due to government funding cuts and only 14% of UK rivers meet Good Ecological Status under the Water Framework Directive in 2019. Increasingly, across the UK local communities are becoming aware of the impacts of pollution on wildlife and safety for recreation. Phone Apps such as Surfers Against Sewage ‘Safer Seas’ alerts communities to high sewage levels in local waters and storm overflow incidents. This is leaving many people wanting to know more such as – why does this keep happening? how dangerous is the water when there is a sewage alert? Why are water companies persistently releasing sewage and untreated water into seas, estuaries and rivers? What is the impact of sewage on marine and estuary wildlife? We also know that modern farming methods can often increase run off of soils leading to greater sediment load in rivers and that chemicals and slurry washing off the land can cause harm to aquatic systems. We also know that local aquaculture is impacted severely by changes in water quality. Shellfish are particularly sensitive to pollution and changes in water quality can lead to an unsellable product. Without good data is is difficult to make a clear assessment of the particular conditions of each water body and so over the past few years people have started to take monitoring into their own hands and schemes such as West Country Rivers Trust Citizen Science have blossomed and flourished. Many hundreds of people across the UK are now getting to know their rivers and acting on the information they are finding. Films such as Riverside which focuses on the River Wye focus attention on this nationwide problem. Tidelines also identified that monitoring using creative as well as scientific methods (such as the Sonic Kayak) give many different ways for people to build a more in depth relationship with and knowledge of the estuary. The Exe Estuary Box and conversations with people around the estuary at events and presentations have shown us that water quality and water pollution are priorities for estuary residents.

The day started by giving thanks for the place we live, the opportunity to be together in person and by identifying a non-human (more than human) being or entity that is part of the Exe for each of us to represent throughout the day. This was to remind us of the other parts of the ecosystem and the other beings that make the estuary their permanent or temporary home.
(See Circular pic above)

Throughout the day Shelley Castle was drawing and visually representing ideas that came up and conversations that were being had. We heard short presentations from members of the group including Ross Brown, SWEEP project, University of Exeter; Natalie Holt RSPB; Anne-Marie Culhane Tidelines; Rob Ellis – aquaculture researcher University of Exeter and local resident; Mary Culhane, Jenny Sutton, Kerin Pillans – all local residents; Simon Browning West Country Rivers Trust; David Smith South West Water and Martin Syvrey Aquaculture Specialist. You can find Kathy’s video of the presentations here:

We then had a lively discussion the challenge that Tidelines had identified and the vision for what we want to do.

The challenge:

The water quality and health of the water in the Exe Estuary and coast needs to improve and the Estuary is being impacted by the climate and ecological crisis. The regulatory frameworks to protect the estuary from pollution are not fit for purpose. People do not feel well enough informed about why the estuary is important and the risks and changes taking place and what they can do about them. People would like to support the Estuary and coast to thrive.

The vision or what we hope for:

Working with people of all ages around the Exe estuary to monitor the health of the changing estuary and coast and gathering reliable accessible information and knowledge. This is in order to influence policy and personal behaviour, develop a shared sense of responsibility, and create a cleaner estuary and coast that supports a rich and diverse natural habitat that is safe for swimming and recreation and brings a greater awareness of the complexity of the system and the climate and ecological emergency.

Over lunch people went on a sound walk with Kathy Hinde listening to sounds in the estuary using an underwater hydrophone. We discussed what we can learn about a system and its health through using our listening sense.(later that day I took Kathy up to Lympstone to record the sound of pacific oysters)

We started to share different areas of interest or ideas inspired by this vision and the challenge.

How we might care for the more-than-human estuary (all the other beings that live in on and around our estuary)

– Community-led ecosystem restoration ie Shellfish mussels and oysters and seagrass monitoring and cultivation of shellfish for bioremediation including monitoring the shellfish for contamination ie as pollution indicators and for learning and distribution of knowledge in the community.
– Upstream land management and reducing run-off from land and farms
– Long term quiet zones in the estuary
– Putting real value on ‘ecosystem services’ and who is providing them for example native and non-native shellfish. Being very mindful of price tags and economic value placed on a complex web of relationships.
– Develop a library of knowledge and practice for restoration projects so we can build on existing resources.
– Mapping how water quality varies across the Estuary – spatially and temporally.

Key elements here were:
– Citizen science and monitoring and sharing of information to raise awareness;
– Case studies on restoration from existing projects here and elsewhere;
– pilot community led and community involved aquaculture schemes;
– mapping and quantify baseline re species and water quality – bring together existing data.

– Understanding and Reducing Waste
– Increasing our understanding of the role of sediment as a source of pollution and a holder of pollution
– Reducing plastic waste going down the loo and raising awareness of capturing surface water.
– Work with other groups on keeping the beach clean
– Establish open and accessible information and knowledge of water quality on the Exe.
– False messages are given by Blue Flag on Exmouth beach. From Blue Flag website: The most important stipulation is that no industrial, waste-water or sewage-related discharges should affect the beach.The Blue Flag flies even when there are sewage alerts. An idea to have community flags and flagpoles to reveal the true picture of the water quality and give alerts when there are sewage overflows.


Giving the Estuary a Voice

– Apply for rights for the estuary as an entity/charter- explore legal frameworks and how this might have a positive impact (see Dart Charter & Whanganui River)
– Develop an Exe estuary festival linked to the cycles of the environment (like Tidelines’ High Water global event marking Highest tide of the year) and including an Exe community assembly.
– An Estuary Centre with education, talks, art, artist residencies, live research projects, learning packs, live cameras/webcams and hydrophones and equipment for monitoring. Including projects aimed at teens – could be sonic kayak, build your own sensor, artist working with data and converting to visuals, working with leisure sports community.


Monitoring & Recording on the Estuary

– Bespoke citizen science and monitoring for the Exe (designed by artists/scientists) to enable people to notice differences and share these publicly (builds on work of Westcountry Rivers Trust and refines Tidelines Community Almanac)
– Build a bank of artists who want to be involved with the technology side and data interpretation side
– Develop a web interface for the data results with immediate and rapid transformation of data.
– Finding effective ways for data to be used to feed back to local authority, monitoring agencies and SW Water.
– Recording the impacts on birds of water quality, conducting long term ecological monitoring. Plankton monitoring (flourometer/Marine Biological Association)
– Engage with Advanced Technology that can give rapid water quality measurements (Marine Biological Association)
– Monitor specific events such as Combined Sewage overflows (CSOs).
– Swimmers, watersports, leisure users, dog walkers involved in monitoring.
– Open source info so people can build their own and innovate new ways to monitor and record.

Please do get in touch with us. We are seeking funding and keen to start as soon as possible with some of these ideas and need your support and involvement. Please see below for people already involved.

RIVER: Simon Browning – West country Rivers Trust – Happy to continue to being part of the Exe conversation esp monitoring, community driven data collection, analysis and visualisation and education working with schools/colleges, cubs, scouts, guides etc

BARNACLE: Martin Syvret – Aquafish Solutions ltd – Can provide support and help facilitate a small/local native oyster restoration project that is owned/managed/run by the local community

PLANKTON: Mary Culhane (local resident) – help to form local connections, linking interested parties/businesses (some marketing skills and local knowledge) Willing to help collect data as swimmer and paddleboarder and be part of future workshops

TIDE: Anna Harries – The Edge Watersports – make knowledge more accessible in schools, beach school qualification, red flag for water quality, Exmouth water festival, Exmouth Estuary Box project, linking Edge/Hangtime to Tidelines.

LAND: Tom Powell – Global Systems Institute, Tidelines advisory group – Help develop monitoring activities, bring in students, support dialogue and learning, answer questions together

SEAGRASS: Imogen Horn – Masters student, Global Systems Institute, studying Seagrass on the Exe with Tidelines – Help with citizen science/workshops/education to raise awareness of the importance of the estuary and protecting it

WAVES: Emily Deery (now Rowena Stern) – Marine Biological Association. – Website creation, citizen science training (data collection)engagement with similar partners, plankton ID, Access to specialist in research and technology, data mapping, networking

OYSTER: Ross Brown – University of Exeter – Help source water quality data and interpretation of data. Help predict future changes in water quality. Help provide contacts for greater networking, help supervise research students.

OYSTERCATCHER:Natalie Holt – RSPB – Happy to extend our network and share info including through social media. Working with land owners to facilitate good upstream habitat management (landscape-scale)

LIFE: Kerin Pillans (local resident) – I would be interested in water quality monitoring, sea and /or river. Public information activities, continued participation in developing strategies.

SEAL: Katie Baugham-Martin. (local resident) – Interest in networking, getting involved in monitoring and awareness in the community, interested in an Estuary centre and getting involved with that. Work at Exeter College so could potentially see how the college could line up with local projects

MUSSEL: Rob Ellis – Uni of Exeter – Happy to support activities towards starting exe estuary community management including identifying and securing funding, as well as encouraging university involvement

DIATOM: Kathy Hinde – listening walks/floats/drifts combined with data collection and reading – followed by sonification workshop. Sonification of data, creative sound workshops, sound monitoring, DIY tech ideas for sensors/kit

BEAVER: Jennie Sutton (local resident) regular monitoring by hand, flags and sails to warn water users of unsafe waters.

SEA: Anne-Marie, Tidelines, supporting co-ordination and development of project and concept and cross-disciplinary working

GOOSE: David Smith, South West Water

Sophie Nedelec – University of Exeter – use of sonic kayak for monitoring/public engagement

Thanks to East Devon Council and Global Systems Institute for funding this lab.

It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. ― Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us, 1951

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