Adopting a river: How to get out, get dirty, and make a difference!
Last updated: 23 December 2007.
Why adopt a river?
Picture by "V"
news reports are anything to go by, our rivers have never been in
better shape. Even so, many rivers are plagued by all kinds of
problems, from discarded shopping trolleys to invasive species, from
new quarries and roads to neglect and decay, and from very localized
agricultural pollution or occasional sewage spills to the massive
looming threat from climate change.
round the country, there are dozens of groups and thousands of
individuals who give up some of their spare time to help protect
their local rivers. The UK Rivers Network was set up in 1999 to help
these groups share their ideas and work together more effectively.
It's far from a comprehensive network and most rivers have no local
groups looking out for them. That's a position we're very keen to
so often, people write to us explaining a particular problem with
their local river and asking what they can do about it. More often
than not, it's a pollution problem; sometimes it's a threat to a
river from a new development of some kind – a quarry, perhaps,
or a bypass that would destroy part of a floodplain. All these
situations are different and it's difficult for us to offer general
advice. Generally, though, the answer is always the same: what you
can do to make a difference is adopt your river:
you can make it the focus of a community cleanup or restoration
project, campaign, or celebration.
thing is always true about protecting the environment: although laws,
policies, and government agencies have a crucial role to play,
ultimately much comes down to what ordinary people can do to tackle
local problems themselves. If you're unhappy about shopping trolleys
in your river, you could write a “Why-oh-why” letter to
your local paper moaning about your local council, or the problem of
disaffected teenagers, or your bitterness about people who don't
care. Or you could make a stand, make a difference, and try to do
something about it. You could start a local campaign to clean up the
river: you could get the local community involved not just in rubbish
collection but in long-term habitat restoration and even in holding
an annual celebration of the river. Which would you rather do? Moan
about the negative—or do something positive? Adopting a river
can be hard work, but it can be rewarding for the environment and
empowering for the local community. Earth's environmental problems
are far from trivial, but you can do things that make a difference.
And you can start right now!
This booklet is not written for
river experts: it's written for ordinary people who want to make a
difference to their local rivers—people who may become
inadvertent river experts in due course! We've kept river and
environmental terminology to a minimum. It's designed to work
equally well as a Web page and if you print it out (that's why all the
web links are spelled out in full.
This booklet is a work in
progress—and it is intended always to be that way. We hope people will
keep feeding us thoughts and ideas so we can constantly extend and
expand it. Tell us what you think: Is this a useful guide? Is it a load
of rubbish? What can we improve? In particular, we need your help
developing some useful
“Adopt-a-river” case studies.
How to adopt a river
1.What does “adopting a river” actually mean?
No-one owns our rivers. Even so, many people have so-called
rights” to the rivers that run through or near their
land. In short, they own the riverbed, but not the water that runs over
it. They also have the right to receive the water flowing from upstream
in its natural state (undiminished in quality or quantity). Some of our
rivers are important ecologically and carry various levels of
protection; a few are designated as Sites of Special Scientific
Interest (SSSI), for example, while many are home to strictly
protected species such as otters. When we talk about “adopting
a river” in this booklet, we mean taking on the notional role
of guardian for a particular stretch of river near you. Generally,
you will need to do that with the full cooperation of the people who
own the riparian rights and you will need to be very sensitive to the
importance of the environment you are trying to protect. Having said
that, if you've reached a point where you are considering adopting a
river, usually something is not right: a river is typically being
neglected, abused, or threatened. Your mission is to do something
about that. Adopting a river can bring you into conflict with
riparian owners, farmers, local councils, and other bodies whom you
believe (rightly or wrongly) are neglecting their responsibilities.
In practice, adopting a river can be as much about crafty
campaigning, local politics, media management, and public relations
as about doing physical things to make the river better. But don't
let that put you off!
What are your objectives?
talk a lot about “saving the environment”, “protecting
the planet”, and “helping the Earth”, but such
vague generalities are not much help when it comes to adopting a
river. It's important to have a clear idea of your objectives when
you're fighting a development, such as a landfill site or quarry that
would devastate part of the river's ecosystem, your objective might
seem clear: what you want to do is stop the development and save the
river. But is that really the end of your work? You might start to
consider why your local council, regional development agency, or
national government has put policies in place that led to a direct
threat to your river... and you might work to change those policies
later on. Otherwise, the threat to your river could reappear in a few
years time or in someone else's backyard. Needless to say, if you
play this game too readily, you can soon find yourself bogged down in
complexity: you can start off wondering why your house floods every
few years... and find yourself waving banners at a climate conference
in the Hague! Environmentalists have a saying, “Think global,
act local”, which means do something positive and effective in
your own life without losing sight of the bigger picture. Really that
saying should be “Think global, act local, think global.”
There's no point in piling up the sand-bags outside your front door
if you don't give at least some thought to the looming threat from
climate change and how the world, as a whole, should be addressing
usually best to start off with small, achieveable goals—however
small they might be. You can always set yourself bigger, more
ambitious goals later. But if you start off with goals that are too
ambitious and don't achieve them, that will be very disempowering and
will probably destroy your enthusiasm for the project. It is usually
better to spend a day hauling shopping trolleys out of a river or
picking litter up off the riverbanks than to spend a year in endless
meetings with local councils and have little or nothing to show for
on, if our project is a success, you might want to turn your river
project into a more sustainable organization, such as a charity.
Setting up a charity can be quite a complex and formal process and it
does require you to specify your aims very clearly. For the time
being, less clearly defined aims are fine!
Cooperation or conflict?
pitfall is having a number of conflicting aims. One difficulty that
river groups often come across is the potential conflict between
people who have different visions of our riverside world. There may
well be differences of opinion between landowers who want to keep
parts of their estate private and those who believe in greater public
access and the right to roam; between local councils who (as they see
it) are trying to allow new homes to revitalize the economy and
environmentalists who would prefer no new development on greenfield
land; or between fishermen and country-sports enthusiasts, on the one
hand, and people who believe such things are morally wrong, on the
other. Generally speaking, community groups and projects work best
when they are as inclusive as possible:
seek the common ground
if you possibly can; try to involve as many different people in your
group or project as you possibly can. As a general rule, cooperation
is the best way to go.
said that, the world is dominated by economic interests and
environmental protection often ranks as little more than an
afterthought. Local councils may well be working for the good of the
community, but some, demonstrably, also work hand-in-hand with
property developers. National government policies may also be
socially motivated—but they too are just as susceptible to
special pleading and vested interests. Inevitably, there are times
when cooperation gets you nowhere. The meek may well inherit the
Earth, but it'll be an Earth covered with motorways, housing
developments, landfills, and quarries. There are times when you have
no choice but to take a confrontational stance, however reluctantly.
your local river is a mess and you want to do something about it, a
confrontational, finger-pointing campaign, perhaps waged with the
help of your local newspaper, can work wonders. But don't be
confrontational for the sake of it. Use confrontation to win over
your opponents. Get the bad guys on your side. Make them see the
error of their ways and clean up their act. Use confrontation
to make them cooperate in the broader
interests of your
Who are the players?
nothing to stop you adopting a river all by yourself—but you
will generally get on much better if you work with other people. One
of the first things you need to do is contact other local groups and
organizations and see how they can help you. Your shopping list of
groups to contact should look like this:
- Local branch of the Environment
Agency (look under “Environment Agency” in your local phone book, call
their general enquiry line on 0645-333111, or see http://www.environment-agency.gov.uk/).
- The environment department of your local town, district, or
- The parish councils for villages or communities through which
your river runs.
- Any local angling groups you know about. If you're not sure
whether there are any, ask at your local
library. Don't forget to sound out the person who runs the local
- Any river protection groups already active in your area, on the
same river upstream or downstream, or on
different rivers nearby. (For a list of active UK river groups, see our
- Any more general environmental
groups in the area. Just about every county in Britain has an active
branch of the Wildlife Trusts (see http://www.wildlifetrusts.org)
and many of these have highly experienced river or wetland project
officers. Most counties have an active branch of the Campaign to
Many communities have a green-minded
local Friends of the Earth group (http://www.foe.co.uk).
Some have a
group of British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (BTCV), or a
BTCF-affiliated organization (http://www.btcv.org).
Groups like this
may or may not be able to help you with a river project, but they will
usually be receptive and sympathetic, and they can also be a source of
willing volunteers for your own project.
- The editor of your local paper. He
or she may well turn out to be one of your biggest allies. Several
local papers have championed community-based river cleanups in recent
other people you need to contact are the riparian owners—the
people who, in theory, own your river. But first you need to find out
who those people are. You could try the Land Registry. You could walk
along the river asking at houses and farms on the route. Or you could
ask your local Environment Agency to help you.
you've contacted all these groups, why not set up a meeting between
all the interested parties? Outline the problem and see what
solutions you come up with. Float the idea of setting up a community
river group. If people are receptive to that idea, you could form an
alliance between these groups where each contributes, in some small
way, to getting the project off the ground. If they are not
receptive, and your idea is still a good one, you may need to go it
way, all this talking can take a long time and it can rapidly dampen
your enthusiasm. There's nothing worse than being seized by the
determination to start a river project... only to get bogged down in
months of bureaucracy with four levels of local government. You could
save your letter-writing for those long, dull winter evenings when
getting out is harder than you'd like it to be. Another way to cut
through red tape is to set deadlines. Announce that you're going to
hold a local river jubilee on a set date in six months time and see
how much faster the local groups move! But remember that some groups
meet only very infrequently. Parish councils, for example, often meet
only once a quarter—so don't expect them to give you their
blessing by return of post.
Finding out about rivers... and your river
so you've decided to set up a river group or campaign. But what do
you actually know about your river or about rivers in general?
Chances are, you are an ordinary member of the community who just
happens to care about rivers—not someone with a Ph.D. in the
spawning cycle of the Atlantic salmon! So it's important to do some
research. Find out as much as you can about rivers in general and
your river in particular.
are lots of good introductory books about rivers. One of the best is The
New Rivers and Wildlife Handbook,
published jointly by RSPB, the National Rivers Authority, and The
Wildlife Trusts. It's a comprehensive practical handbook and guidebook that explains exactly
how rivers work and it's available from RSPB (http://www.rspb.org.uk/).
also need to find out as much as you can about your local river.
Someone at the Environment Agency should be able to help you find
things like catchment plans and management plans—the official
documents they produce to explain how rivers will be managed in
future. You should also look at things like the Local Plan for your
district and your county Structure Plan, the documents that set out
how your area will change and develop over the next few years.
round in circles!
up a community river group is never a neat and easy thing; you're
bound to go round in circles from time to time. Sometimes this is a
really good thing! For example, if you started out with the idea that
you were going to set up a river-cleaning project, then did all the
research and contacted a variety of interest groups, you might decide
to revise your initial objective: you might decide that it's better
to join forces with an existing environmental group, for example, or
you might find that cleaning up the river really involves mounting a
campaign against disaffected teenagers—and building them a
skate park on the other side of town. Once you've done your research
and contacted local groups, revisit your original objectives. Are
they still valid? How have your ideas changed? Setting up a community
group is an iterative process—and going round in circles is
definitely a good thing (at least some of the time).
How will you organize your project?
river projects vary enormously in size and scope. At one end of the
scale, there are initiatives like the Mersey Basin Campaign (http://www.merseybasin.org.uk/),
25-year project with millions of pounds of government money to spend
on urban regeneration centered on the Mersey communities. More
commonly, there are dozens of tiny river groups set up as charities
that carry out all kinds of restoration projects on their local
rivers. At the opposite end of the scale, there are individuals who
just walk along river banks picking up litter. All of these are
perfectly valid approaches to a local river project.
start off with, you could just run your group as a loose collective.
Meet in your house or (better still) in the local pub. Decide what
you want to do among yourselves—and then just go out and do it.
If you want to be more formal, elect a chairperson, secretary, and
treasurer, adopt a written constitution, and set up a bank account
for your funds. More formally still, look into setting up a
registered charity (see the Charity Commission website http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk),
bear in mind that this takes time (usually up to a couple of years),
costs money, and requires a certain amount of ongoing bureaucracy
(such as the need to operate within very carefully stated aims and
the legal requirement to file annual accounts).
Finding like-minded people
can get this far all by yourself, if you want to. But to get much
further, you really need to involve other people. Community
activities, by definition, are social activities.
other people involved greatly multiplies the effect you can have, if
you do it right. It not only gives you more opportunity to make a
difference, it turns your community project into a fun social
activity and a great new way to meet like-minded people.
said that, finding people to help you can sometimes be a challenge.
You will have found some allies already by contacting the
organizations mentioned above. An appeal through the local media is
another obvious step. Contact local papers, radio stations, and TV
stations and see if they'll run a story about your project. If you're
planning an event, such as a major river cleanup, the media will
almost always give you some sort of advanced coverage. Ideally, give
them at least a week's warning so they can plan ahead and, if they
promise to run a story, phone them a couple of days beforehand to
check that they haven't forgotten.
what will you actually do?
this stage, you should have a pretty good idea just what you're
doing. It might be a river cleanup, a river restoration project, a
campaign to save a threatened river or stop pollution, or a campaign
to have a waterway turned into a safe swimming area with proper
information boards, life-belts, and so on. Any of these projects
could involve any number of different, ongoing activities. A river
cleanup could tackle different parts of a polluted river bank one day
each month, for example. Or a campaign for safe swimming could
involve a safe-swimming day when you arrange for strong-swimmers to
act as marshalls to prove that a particular area really is safe.
Generally speaking, it's best to have an idea how your project or
campaign will play out over a period of time: don't just think up a
one-off activity, but try to imagine how things will develop over a
period of months or years.
Don't forget: you're not the first or the only river group in
the UK. There's a lot you can learn from all the other groups that are
already running, both in the UK and overseas. Some have websites
describing their activities that will give you great ideas. Take a look
at our Network page (http://www.ukrivers.net/network.html)
for contact details.
simplest way to adopt a river is to take a dirty one... and clean it
up! First, you need to know exactly what's wrong with the river. Does
it run through a town park where people toss in their litter? Does it
run down from a factory or farm where pollution levels are too high?
Is someone abstracting too much water (taking out too much)? Or is
the problem a combination of all these things? There's no point
trying to clean up a river until you've found out exactly what's
wrong with it, so make that your first priority. Contact your local
Environment Agency office and ask to speak to someone about it.
Discuss what action they are taking and see whether they think a
community group could help.
British Trust for
Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) publishes lots of useful information
about practical conservation work, including information about wetland
restoration. The BTCV Practical
Conservation Online website
is a great place to start.
easy to organize a community river cleanup and you'll be
surprised—even amazed and delighted—how ready some people
will be willing to help. But there are significant dangers and
pitfalls. Rivers and inland waters can obviously be very dangerous
places, so you need to investigate very carefully the risks of doing
a cleanup before you start. Is the water deep? Is it choked with
weeds? Is there deep mud or silt? Is it actually safe for anyone to
go into the river to clean it, or should you just stick to the banks?
If you plan to organize a local
river cleanup, you (or your river group) might want to take out public
liability insurance to cover you in the event someone has an accident.
Insurance isn't necessarily that expensive. British Trust for
Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) offers insurance
of this kind to
conservation groups. A local insurance broker might also be able to
equipment do you need?
good idea to make a preliminary survey of the river before you try to
clean it up. What sorts of rubbish are you likely to have to remove?
How will you do that? You'll need obvious things like lots of bin
bags (including black bags for rubbish and other bags for recyclable
items). But what will you do with abandoned shopping trolleys and
larger items? Or broken bottles, syringes, and other sharp and
dangerous objects. Think ahead, plan ahead, and make sure you're
might help to have at least one person on hand with a pair of waders
or someone wearing a wetsuit (plus wetsuit gloves and surfing boots
if the water is especially cold). A small rowing boat might also be a
cleanups help to keep our seas clean too: if we can keep some of the
rubbish out of our rivers, we can help to reduce marine pollution.
The Marine Conservation Society (http://www.mcsuk.org)
long-running Adopt-a-Beach scheme (http://www.mcsuk.org/beachwatch/)
that you could help out with if you do not live near a river. Apart
from shifting mountains of rubbish, the MCS collects data about beach
pollution as part of a long-term strategy to draw public attention to
the problem. The MCS is also interested in working with river groups
to study how river pollution contributes to coastal pollution. So if
that interests you, get in touch with them.
your river is suffering from neglect or bad management, cleaning up
is less the order of the day than restoration. This is a much more
specialized job and it does require greater knowledge of what rivers
are about, how they work, and how people can help them along. If
you're thinking of river restoration work, you will need help (or at
least guidance) from real river experts, especially if your river is
of high ecological value. If your river is designated as a SSSI or
contains protected species, you must seek expert advice. The best
places to start will probably be your local Environment Agency
office, English Nature team, or Wildlife Trust. We've listed some
other contacts in the back of this brochure. Take a look at the
section on river restoration in The New Rivers
Handbook. Also check out the
excellent River Restoration Manual
published by the UK's River Restoration Centre. It's available online
and in paper form (at http://www.therrc.co.uk/manual.php).
As we mentioned above, British Trust for
Conservation Volunteers (BTCV) also publishes lots of useful
about practical conservation work, including wetland
restoration. See the BTCV Practical
Conservation Online website; in particular, take a look at their
Waterways and Wetlands guide)
your river is in perfect condition—lucky you!—and you
want to make sure it stays that way. One way you can achieve this is
to help your local community appreciate the river more. Why not
organize a river celebration or fete? It can be as low-key or as
ambitious as you like.
could arrange it for a hot summer's day, or you could make it a
regular fixture throughout the year. You could time it to coincide
with World Water Day (held each year on 22 March; see http://www.worldwaterday.org/),
Environment Day (around 5 June each year; see http://www.unep.org/wed/), or the
Rivers Network's Day of Action Against Dams and for Rivers, Water, and
March each year; see http://www.irn.org/dayofaction/).
Tie in with one of these events and you can use
your celebration to make a bigger point: water is a valuable but
dwindling resource for people throughout the world. You could also
use a celebration as a fundraiser either for your own group or for a
group like WaterAid, a London-based charity that helps to bring clean
water and sanitation to less fortunate people in developing countries
a river celebration sounds hard work—but it can be incredibly
easy. What about organizing a walk down the banks of your local river
one summer's evening? Invite a local wildlife expert to come along
and give a commentary. Publicize the event in your local paper and
get them to come along and take some photos. Maybe hold a picnic at
the start or the end of the walk, or arrange the route so you start
and end at riverside pubs.
this really adopting a river?
Of course! By helping people to recognize and appreciate the value of
rivers, we give people reasons to look after them.
13. River recreation
you like swimming in your river, if it's safe to do so. Or maybe
you'd like to make your river safe for other people to swim in.
What's the best way to go about it? Many of our rivers and inland
waters are perfectly safe for swimming in. The problem is that there
is a lack of good information telling people where it is safe for
them to swim. The fault lies with our governments, national as well
as local. Under European law (the Bathing Water Directive),
governments have a legal responsibility to identify where people
bathe regularly and then to designate those areas as official bathing
waters, with appropriate signs, information, and other facilities.
Most bathing waters in the UK are, unsurprisingly, at beaches and
coastal areas. Elsewhere in Europe, there are many more designated
bathing waters inland. So if you have a place where people bathe
regularly, why not mount a campaign to have it officially designated?
You may need legal and other help—which the UK Rivers Network
will be pleased to advise you on further. The River and Lake Swimming
Association's website (http://www.river-swimming.co.uk)
is a great
place to start to find out more about swimming in inland waters.
a great deal of the damage that people do to rivers is reversible. We
can pick up litter, we can restore river banks, and we can attempt to
reintroduce valuable species such as otters and water voles. Other
kinds of river damage are harder to tackle. Housing estates built on
floodplains, motorways that pollute rivers with toxic runoff,
quarries that destroy wetlands, and landfills that leach toxic
pollutants over decades and centuries all pose a grave threat.
Sometimes adopting a river means setting up quite a confrontational
environmental campaign to fight a development head on.
campaigning is a huge topic and we don't really have room to explain
all the ins and outs here. Essentially, the objective is to mobilize
massive public opposition to a development and then target the full
force of that opposition at decision-makers in either national,
regional, or local government. That sounds easy; in practice, it can
take many months or even years, it can sometimes cost a great deal of
money, and it can cause permanent rifts in a local community. But it
can also be incredibly worthwhile and rewarding and, when it works
out, it can help to safeguard parts of our priceless environment in
Campaigning for rivers illustrates the more challenging side of
confrontation. In a perfect world, we would all get on fine,
cooperate entirely, and spend all our happy summer evenings going for
pleasant walks by the river. In our imperfect, highly compromised
world, we're more likely to spend the evening pulling shopping
trolleys out of the town pond, writing angry letters to the local
paper, or ranting at a public meeting. Sometimes it is necessary to
be confrontational. Some people enjoy taking on “greedy
developers” or "corrupt councils"; others find the whole thing
distinctly uncomfortable and objectionable.
you are planning a campaign to stop a quarry or an annual celebration
of a chalk-stream river, the key to success is to enjoy yourself. Try
to be as effective as you can, but don't forget to enjoy yourself and
Tell us how you get on
lessons you learn can be of great benefit to other people, so please
do get in touch to tell us how you get on. Maybe sit down and write
us a case study of what your river project or campaign tried to
achieve and how you did it. What pitfalls did you face and how did
you overcome them? What have been your greatest successes.. and your
biggest failures? What advice would you give to others.
please keep in touch!
freshening up our river:
Chris Scott hopes to transform the River Freshney in Grimsby from a
rubbish dump to a paradise—and in this story he explains how the BBC
Action Network is helping along the way.
Copyright © UK Rivers Network 2004.
work is licensed under a Creative