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Adopting a river: How to get out, get dirty, and make a difference!

Last updated: 23 December 2007.

Introduction: Why adopt a river?

Your riverside needs you!Major Badger: Picture by "V"

If 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.

All 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 change.

Every 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.

One 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.

Important note and disclaimer

Sorry this next bit sounds unfriendly; the lawyers made us put it in!

The information provided here is for very general guidance and background only. It is believed to be correct, but the UK Rivers Network does not guarantee its accuracy. You are strongly advised to consult all the relevant authorities, landowners, and owners of riparian rights, and to seek expert professional help and advice before taking on river projects.

Please pay particular attention to health and safety issues, and the obvious dangers posed by rivers and water. This guide does not contain a comprehensive statement on all safety procedures and you must take all reasonable steps to ensure your own health and safety and that of anyone else involved in your project. It is your responsibility, as the organizer of a river project, to implement a health and safety policy. This guide is issued without responsibility on the part of the UK Rivers Network for accidents or damage as a result of its use.

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 “riparian 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!



2. What are your objectives?

People 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 start.

If 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 it.

Small is beautiful

It's 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 your efforts.

Later 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!

3. Cooperation or conflict?

Another 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.

Having 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.

If 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 community.

4. Who are the players?

There's 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:

The 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.

Once 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 alone.

Either 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.

5. Finding out about rivers... and your river

Okay, 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.

There 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/).

You 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.

6. Go round in circles!

Setting 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).

7. How will you organize your project?

Community 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/), a 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.

To 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), but 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).

8. Finding like-minded people

You 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. Getting 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.

Having 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.

9. So what will you actually do?

By 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.

10. River cleanups

The 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.

Is it safe?

It's 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 help.

Important note and disclaimer

Please pay particular attention to health and safety issues, and the obvious dangers posed by rivers and water. This guide does not contain a comprehensive statement on all safety procedures and you must take all reasonable steps to ensure your own health and safety and that of anyone else involved in your project. It is your responsibility, as the organizer of a river project, to implement a health and safety policy. This guide is issued without responsibility on the part of the UK Rivers Network for accidents or damage as a result of its use.

What equipment do you need?

It's a 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 prepared.

It 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 good idea.

Beaches and coasts

River 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) has a 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.

11. River restorations

Waterways and Wetlands: BTCV book coverIf 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 and Wildlife 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 information 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)


12. River celebrations

Maybe 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.

You 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/), World Environment Day (around 5 June each year; see http://www.unep.org/wed/), or the International Rivers Network's Day of Action Against Dams and for Rivers, Water, and Life (14 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 (see http://www.wateraid.org.uk).

Organizing 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.

Is 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

Maybe 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.

14. River campaigns

Thankfully, 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.

Environmental 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 perpetuity.

Taking direct action

Campaigning is about using all the tools at your disposal. That can include everything from using the media to taking “direct action” (where you occupy a threatened area to draw attention to a problem or stop construction work). In the early and mid-1990s, road protesters used direct action to great effect to help persuade the British government to change its transport policy. An influential group called Road Alert! wrote a manual of direct action called Road Raging. This contains all kinds of incredibly useful advice relevant both to “ordinary” and direct-action campaigns. You can read Road Raging online (though the last link we have for it is broken).

If you're looking into a river-related environment campaign, the best place to start might be Mark Lattimer's The Campaigning Handbook, published by Directory for Social Change publications (0207) 209 5151, available through many public libraries. The UK Rivers Network is in regular contact with environmental campaigners, environmental lawyers, and campaign groups throughout the UK who might be able to help you. Please do get in touch to tell us what you're doing and we'll share whatever knowledge we have with you.

Effective environmental campaigning usually involves some knowledge of the planning system. There's a wealth of information on Chris Maile's Campaign for Planning Sanity website (http://www.planningsanity.co.uk). Another good source of campaigning information is Paul Mobbs' Free-Range Activism Website (http://www.fraw.org.uk). Chris and Paul provide an excellent service to British environmental campaigners, so do make a small donation to help keep their sites going if you find them useful. If you want to take a much more considered, strategic approach to campaigning, have a look at Chris Rose's excellent Campaign Strategy.org site (http://www.campaignstrategy.org/).

The law on your side

Sometimes the law can be a great help, but many environmental campaigners are uncertain how to use it. One example is a legal process called judicial review, which allows ordinary people to challenge official decisions that seem to have been made in an inappropriate way. The UK Rivers Network works closely with a number of reliable, specialist environmental lawyers. We can advise you on the pros and cons of using lawyers and recommend dependable firms. Legal challenges can be very expensive, though it is sometimes possible to fund them through Legal Aid.

Campaigning for rivers illustrates the more challenging side of cooperation and 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.

16. Enjoy yourself!

Whether 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 have fun!

18. Tell us how you get on

The 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.

Do please keep in touch!

Case studies

Copyright © UK Rivers Network 2004.

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