water@leeds blog

An interdisciplinary approach to tackling major water issues


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water@leeds visit: Norwegian STITA Tour

A party of over 30 visitors from Norway recently came to the University of Leeds to meet with water@leeds staff and discuss water management in agriculture.

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The visitors arrived as part of a tour around farms in the North of England organised by STITA, a company that works closely with the agricultural community across the globe. Dr Paul Kay provided a seminar on countryside stewardship and its role in protecting water sources, rural diffuse pollution and other water issues associated with agriculture. During the seminar, Kay provided examples of work that the water@leeds team have been involved in, including comparing the different issues facing upland farming and lowland, largely arable agriculture, and work with Yorkshire Water to provide advice to farmers in drinking water catchments.

During the question and answers session, it became apparent that there are a great deal of similarities between the UK and Norway in relation to water management in agriculture. In particular, both countries face similar issues associated with Water Framework Directive (WFD) implementation, invasive species and diffuse pollution issues.

Svein Skøien, who was amongst the visitors to the university, has previously worked with the University of Leeds to help set up a PESERA (Pan European Soil Erosion Risk Assessment) application with Bioforsk/NIBIO in Norway. Sven stated that “We are at a high risk of soil erosion and have been looking for a way to update the system…Soil erosion effects the environment as it brings nutrients and sediments into the lake and causes a loss of soil for the farmers… This will affect food production in the long term, and it has been a priority to avoid soil erosion”. PESERA has sought to address this problem, and has created a model which is currently being used by the Norwegian government, influencing how it delivers millions in farm payments across the country to help reduce soil erosion and nutrient pollution of water courses.

The visitors also met with Cheney Fellow Dr Nikolai Friberg who is visiting from NIVA in Norway and Dr Brian Irvine who is a research fellow at the University of Leeds and part of the PESERA team.

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written by Rosie Samuel


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Microscopic ‘Saturn of the Moors’ discovered

Interview and article by Sarah Reed, University of Leeds Press Officer

A species of alga that resembles the planet Saturn has been discovered for the first time in the British Isles.

The algal species, which is classified as Saturnella saturnus, was discovered by PhD student Jeannie Beadle from the School of Geography at the University of Leeds. Her research looks at pools of water created by peatland restoration measures in the Pennines, such as drain-blocking, with this particular find coming from Moor House-Upper Teesdale Nature Reserve in March 2014.

Saturn of the moors

“I’m really pleased to have shown that drain-blocking is genuinely helping biodiversity. It’s evidence like this which helps land managers to justify the money spent on peatland restoration measures,” said Beadle.

After World War II, many peatlands in the UK were drained using shallow ditches with the aim of drying out the peat to make it more suitable for forestry and land grazing animals.  However, the process has since been shown to be largely ineffective and also damaging to peatland ecosystems.

The blocking of drainage ditches began in the 1980s in an attempt to restore the peatlands to their former boggy state, with most of the pools being created in the last decade or so, when restoration programmes became more widespread.

Beadle concludes: “As well as looking at algae, I’ve sampled about 150 artificial pools for macroinvertebrates, which I’m currently sorting and identifying, so there may be further interesting discoveries later this year. However, I doubt any will be as beautiful as this Saturn of the Moors.”


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‘Clean Water For All’ (CWFA) research initiative – Dr Sangaralingam Ahilan

As part of the ‘Clean Water For All’ (CWFA) research initiative, Dr Sangaralingam Ahilan  travelled to the U.S. on 3rd May for two weeks for co-location research work with U.S. academics at Portland State University (PSU) in Portland, Oregon. This post describes Sangaralingam Ahilan’s personal and research experiences of his first visit to Portland, Oregon.

Portland – The City of Roses

Portland – The City of Roses

Research Experiences

Portland is a Blue Green city in which people and nature can co-exist in the highly developed urban environment.  The city actively promotes storm water management through onsite infiltration and flow control measures to reduce storm water runoff into the street and sewer.  In most parts of Portland, separate storm sewer systems are being implemented to overcome the risk of Combined Sewer Overflows during prolonged rain storms.  This will help protect water courses from microbial pollution and greatly benefit human health, fish and wildlife habitat.

Lake

The UK team research work in Portland is mostly centred on the Johnson Creek (JC) which is one of the highly urbanised streams known for frequent flooding and does not meet water quality standards under the Federal Clean Water Act.  The Bureau of Environmental Services (BES) carries out extensive restoration work along the JC reaches to return its floodplain to natural condition in order to provide more space for river flow and storage, which will enhance flood mitigation, water quality, and fish and wildlife habitat.  Ahilan’s research is focused on the JC reach (East Lents) and JC sub watershed (Errol Heights).

Fish ladder in the Crystal spring

Fish ladder in the Crystal spring

The East Lents reach is one of the reconfigured banks of Johnson Creek and reconnects the reach to a restored floodplain on a 70-acre site with native forest.  The Errol Heights sub watershed is mostly with unimproved streets, this causes substantial erosion and sediment yield from the unimproved street network into the urban drainage, resulting in blockages.  The objective of this study is to integrate flood and sediment dynamics of these sites through detailed hydrodynamic and morphodynamic modelling.  Utilising these models allows researchers to understand the existing sediment dynamics and explore potential blue green interventions to minimise the sediment movement into the urban drainage system and into the river.

Ahilan with Zac Perry at Crystal Spring

Ahilan with Zac Perry at Crystal Spring

Summary

In summary Ahilan was really convinced by the progress of the City of Portland through ‘grey to green’ initiative over the last decade.  He strongly believes that this is the only way to cope with rapid urbanisation resulting from socio economic development and uncertain climate change in the developed and developing world during our lifetime and for future generations.

Let Knowledge Serve the City ……– Portland State University motto


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Killer shrimps are out there – so watch out…

By Lucy Anderson (Faculty of Biological Sciences)

The critter in my hand certainly looks harmless enough. At a mere 2cm long, it’s incredible to think it has the potential to wipe out native fish and invertebrate populations thanks to its voracious appetite. But this isn’t any old shrimp. This is the killer shrimp (Dikerogammarus villosus) and over the past ten years it’s made its way from the Caspian Sea to Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire as I’ve just explained to a BBC film crew.

Killer shrimp in the UK (Image courtesy of Steve Rocliffe)

Killer shrimp in the UK (Image courtesy of Steve Rocliffe)

Invasive alien species like the killer shrimp, American signal crayfish and zebra mussel pose a major threat to biodiversity across the globe. They can out-compete native species for food and habitat, introduce new diseases and damage infrastructure costing the UK alone £1.7 billion per year to manage. Seven out of ten of the Environment Agency’s “most wanted” invasive species are found in freshwater environments. That’s because rivers and lakes are exposed to a lot of pathways by which new invaders can be introduced. They can be transported in the ballast water of ships, be released from ponds or aquaria, or hitchhike on the equipment used by recreational water users, to name but a few.

Invasive species have been making the headlines in recent weeks because of a pioneering piece of legislation which has recently been approved by MEPs in Brussels. At the moment, the management of invasive species is rather disparate across Europe. It’s currently up to each EU member state to manage the invasive species within its boundaries, so all the work done in one country to prevent invaders could be undermined by a neighbouring country which does far less, or focuses its management on different species.

Invasive species hit the headlines (Image courtesy of Steve Rocliffe)

Invasive species hit the headlines (Image courtesy of Steve Rocliffe)

The new legislation aims to change that. For the first time, member states will have to abide by a consistent set of laws to prevent and control invasive species. Preventing the introduction of invasive species in the first place is particularly important, because once these species arrive and establish, they’re almost impossible to eradicate. By improving surveillance at borders, transport and trade routes, the risk of invasive species accidentally entering EU countries can be reduced and the likelihood of detecting and managing new species before they have an opportunity to cause damage can be improved.

We’ve been investigating one such pathway for the spread of invasive species here at the University of Leeds. A survey we conducted with 1500 anglers and canoeists across the UK revealed that around 50% of respondents did not clean their kit before moving to a new catchment. The results (described in this paper) are rather alarming because invasive species like the killer shrimp can survive for up to a fortnight in the damp fold of a wader or crevice of a boat so they could potentially survive in the journey from one site to another.

Thankfully, biosecurity actions are improving among these groups. A lot of environmental NGOs are backing the Check Clean Dry campaign which aims to raise awareness of invasive species and improve biosecurity among water sports enthusiasts.

So next time you take a trip down to the river, remember to check, clean and dry your boots and any equipment that you use in the water. That wriggling shrimp on your welly might look harmless enough but – as we’ve learned from the killer shrimp — looks can be deceiving.

Check, clean and dry your boots and equipment (Image courtesy of Steve Rocliffe)

Check, clean and dry your boots and equipment (Image courtesy of Steve Rocliffe)


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Making a splash in the water, sanitation and hygiene sector

By Barbara Evans (School of Civil Engineering)

This week I’ve been at the WASH2014 conference in Brisbane Australia (www.watercentre.org/events/wash2014/about-wash2014 ).  The conference brought together 340 delegates from 38 countries to reflect on how practitioners might work towards achieving a vision of global access to WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene).  The conference was the brainchild of the Australian WASH Reference Group, is supported by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and is delivered by the International Water Centre in Brisbane (http://www.watercentre.org/ ).  Having been part of the organising committee for the past 18 months and as facilitator of the conference process I’ve been able to see at first hand what an amazing group of people the Reference Group pulls together and how much they have learned and grown over the past seven years.

Sanjay Wijesekara, Chief of WASH UNICEF, speaks at the WASH 2014 conference

Sanjay Wijesekara, Chief of WASH UNICEF, speaks at the WASH 2014 conference

What struck me most about this conference was that it was a true sharing experience – the process included a two day conference and three days of practical training workshops, and the delegates were a blend of academics, government officials, NGO staff and fieldworkers. Many of the delegates have commented on the generosity and spirit of collaboration that characterises this group of Australian professionals and their colleagues from around the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.   Despite the light-hearted atmosphere and high levels of energy, the conference dealt with serious issues; new evidence was presented on the relationship between open defecation and stunting, there were new data on equity and access to services from the Joint Monitoring Program of the United Nations, and a number of important break-through ideas relating to fecal sludge management, menstrual-hygiene management and inclusive designs for WASH programming.

Delegates on Day 1 of the conference

Delegates on Day 1 of the conference

Within the emerging post-2015 global agenda, the critical dialogue that begins at the conference – and continues around the world through networks and connections made between conference attendees – can help achieve successes that improve life and health for generations to come.

Podcasts of all the conference sessions, and copies of the all the conference and training presentations along with video of all the plenaries will be available shortly from the website (www.watercentre.org/events/wash2014/about-wash2014).


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Some initial thoughts on climate change and January 2014 UK floods

By John Marsham (water@leeds Academic Research Fellow)

I had thought that the UK flooding this winter was so extreme that the small percentage increase in rainfall expected from a warmer atmosphere could not explain the rain and floods. The floods have been caused by a persistent track of Atlantic storms. I assumed this storm track was itself unprecedented, but the figures below have made me reconsider this.

The warming of Earth’s atmosphere with climate change increases its ability to hold water, and this is expected to increase maximum rainfall rates. The ability to hold water increases by roughly 7%/°C, but the effect on rain rates is more uncertain, with research suggesting that this effect may well be significantly larger (e.g. 14%/°C).

We cannot attribute any particular event to climate change, but climate change alters the likelihood of events. It’s a bit like throwing a loaded dice: you’re more likely to get a six, but that doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t have got a six with an unloaded dice. Therefore you cannot say if any particular six was caused by the dice being loaded.

 

January Rainfall in UK 1910 to 2014

January Rainfall in UK 1910 to 2014

In the plot above you can see decadal variability throughout the record above, but the recent peaks are higher. The previous peak was 158.2mm (1988). In 1940s it was more like 146 mm. This means January 2014 was about 11% wetter than 1988 and 20% wetter than the peak in the 1940s. Global air temperatures have risen by about 1°C since 1910 (IPCC). Changes of up to 20% in rainfall peaks may therefore in the main part be broadly consistent with man-made warming increasing the atmosphere’s ability to hold water and therefore increasing rain rates.

The two plots below, which show the anomaly from the long-term mean of the storm track from January 1988 (top, the previous record) and January 2014 (bottom, new record).

Storm track 1988

Storm track 1988

Storm track 2014

Storm track 2014

The anomalies in the upper level winds are similar in the two years, with both having very strong gradients west of the UK and minima almost over the UK. In fact the gradients in January 1988 are stronger than January 2014. This suggests that the January 2014 storm track may not be unprecedented, but the southern England rainfall is, with the increased rainfall of a magnitude broadly consistent with the expected effects of warming.

These are very simple “back-of-the-envelope” arguments. In depth analysis and comprehensive modelling are certainly needed.  We should bear in mind that there are large random variations in rainfall extremes over small land areas. The current flooding has been caused by a persistent track of storms not just in January, but from December through January and February. Climate change is expected to change the storm track itself.

One thing is apparent however: even small changes in extremes can have very large impacts on livelihoods and infrastructure, which have evolved, or been developed, to deal with an expected level of variability. With a few degrees of man-made global warming looking very likely to me, you have to wonder how bad UK floods might be in the coming decades.