Oh the irony. And what a purple river really tells us about us.

The timing was uncannily unfortunate. Last Friday – exactly one week ago – we launched the CaBA chalk stream restoration strategy – fruit of a year’s collaborative work between stakeholders, NGOs, government, water industry, farming and regulators – on the banks of the River Mimram. I had been determined to get the heads of the Environment Agency, Natural England and the Environment Minister Rebecca Pow into the river for a photo-call, as I believe when you immerse yourself in these wonderful ecosystems you become emotionally invested in them. I thought it would be symbolic in a small way. Binding, even.

The previous Saturday I had driven down to meet the farmer and owner of the venue and the river was looking great: good flows, clear water, billowing beds of starwort, the odd rising trout. I took this photo for the front cover of our flyer for the event. 

The Mimram was a good place for the launch, I thought. It is something of a success story, in as much as we can find them nowadays. Fifteen odd years before, I had helped launch a WWF campaign there which we called Rivers on the Edge. I said to a crowd, which included local MP Oliver Heald, that chalk streams were our burning rainforest, our melting glacier and that we should fix the conservation crisis on our doorstep in order to maintain any credibility when addressing those crises in far-flung parts of the world. A metaphor that has since caught on, much as it was intended to. 

The Mimram was under the severe pressure of over-abstraction in those days, but Oliver Heald – and others – have been stalwarts on its behalf. Abstraction at Fulling Mill was lessened in 2015, and ceased in 2017, although since 2019 the 9 Ml/d saving is split between Fulling Mill and Digswell. Now, it is within the target we set in our strategy, with less than a 10% impact at low flows. No bed of roses, mind. The Lea to the east suffers a 90% impact in the headwaters (which may affect the very upper Mimram) the Beane to the west, a 40% impact. There is still work to do: hence the event, hence the strategy.

The day went well. The vibe was energetic, positive, united, determined: but none of these in a naive sense. We were all frank about the scale of the task of fixing our beleaguered chalk streams. After the photo-call I took Rebecca Pow (Environment Minister) downstream so she could see a restoration project and a team at work in the river: Rob Mungovan, Wild Trout Trust project officer, accompanied the minister into the stream and effused about the underwater life and the power of habitat work to bring about change. We arranged to have a further meeting to go through all the report’s recommendations one by one. I got a sense of real commitment and though I know there are commentators out there who think I am hopelessly optimistic I will hold on to a belief in people’s desire and ability to make the world a better place until I’m six feet under. 

But then, as if to prove my hope and faith a vain conceit … on Monday afternoon like a scene from some kind of dystopian future inversion of everything we had been striving for, the river turned a vivid, hideous shade of purple.

Taken on Monday 18th October. Photo kindly supplied by the nice lady in the glass-blowing factory. Thank you.

I found out via a flurry of urgent emails on Tuesday. 

The image had been posted on Twitter, alongside a picture of us posing in the river. My symbol of conviction had been turned on its head: “So much for fine words and speeches,” the post read, “all of it devoid of intent and delivering even less.” 

Since I had delivered one of the speeches and the longest at that, I guess my words must have been included in that summary judgment: “devoid of intent and delivering even less”. Well, we should all be called to account, but I like to think I’ve done my bit for rivers since I first started a restoration project with school kids on a river in Dorset 30 years ago. As for delivery on this latest project, we’ll have to see, won’t we? I don’t think it will be easy, I don’t even think we’ll change everything we want to and need to, but giving it a weekend before condemnation seems a little harsh. 

The reaction on Twitter was one of shock and anger. Too right, they chimed: this dystopian scene clearly displayed a cynical carelessness on the part of those great and the good pictured. How could these so-called custodians of the environment allow such a thing to happen on their watch? It was a disgrace, heartbreaking, beyond parody. Only one person from amidst the throng of commentators dared to point out that “not all pollution in water courses is from sewage works, and even if run well, and of appropriate capacity, they’re not a buffer against all kinds of stuff being dropped down the drain, they just can’t be”. Well, quite.

The river pictured was a deep and opaque purple from bank to bank: if you know anything about pollution, you’ll know that vivid purple is not the colour of a storm overflow and it’s not the colour of the unnaturally high phosphorus concentrations (invisible until they cause algal blooms) or sediment run-off that cause real, chronic ecological harm: the sorts of pollution that genuinely result from under-investment in sewage works or our careless use of the landscape are not quite so … theatrical.

This river, on the other hand, was purple, as in paint, or food dye, or the dye used to trace pipe outfalls and the like. It was odd, in other words. Dystopian, shocking, but also odd. 

Bizarrely, no one on the Twitter feed questioned whether the EA had actually been notified, so that they might at least have a chance to investigate in a timely way. As it happened, the EA did visit on Monday – so they must have responded pretty quickly. The water had cleared by the time they got there: no dead fish, no dead invertebrates. Their notification of this on Twitter was greeted with incredulity and more abuse.

I also decided to go take a look myself. I wanted to know a bit more about whatever it was that had so undermined the intent I had invested in 12 months of working seven days a week:  I deserved an answer, although I doubted I’d get one. I found the spot where the photo had been taken easily enough: a bend in the stream at the foot of the Mimram Road in Hertingford Bury, a cul-de-sac of industrial units. One of these units might have been uppermost in my list of suspects until I saw that the colour had obviously come from upstream of this point. A lady in a glass factory at the end of the road gave me the picture she had taken. The dye had come downstream quickly, she said, and dispersed quickly too: like a plug of vivid water, in other words. Someone had clearly chucked something into the river. Not so much a totem of cynical neglect by the regulators, then, as a totem of careless neglect by society. 

The same bend in the stream when I went on Wednesday 20th. This time carrying colour of a much more pernicious, but quotidian type: road run-off.

If it had come from upstream it hadn’t come far: Rob Mungovan confirmed to me that there had been no colour where he was working in Panshangar Park just upstream of the A414, less than a mile away.

In between, there are only a couple of places where someone could have tipped something in.

The first is where a footpath crosses the stream and although immediately below the A414, it is a long walk from any road. It would have taken a determined fly-tipper. I also noticed a road run-off discharge point there, under the flyover and draining the A414 above. I was there after a heavy downpour and although this was running, it was only a trickle. The part of the A414 that it drains is a deep puddle, and the drain is blocked with leaves. There was no pink residue there and anyway it would have been almost impossible to stop on the dual carriageway to discharge anything.

The second is the road bridge by the mill on St Mary’s Lane, just a hundred yards downstream from the flyover. You’d hardly notice the bridge unless you knew what you were looking for. I find it unlikely that anyone would stop there to chuck something in, but if they had the river is fast and turbulent at this point, so dye would have mixed well.

Between these two spots and the place the photo was taken there is no opportunity to access the river by the public. There’s just a pony ranch and open meadows and two small housing cul-de-sacs to the south of the Hertingfordbury Road, and a number of road drains that probably connect to the river. I didn’t have time to drive down either cut de sac, although I remember calling my wife at home and jokingly wondering if someone in one of those roads had new purple walls, but had bought too much paint, or a new purple hair-do but had bought too much dye. Either that or there are some pink ponies prancing about the meadows. Or it’s just a mystery and will remain one.

Oh the irony! Those great and good and their report which “says little and achieves even less” and as if to prove it, a vividly magenta river polluted by a mysterious dye that came and went and left no trace.

In Christchurch, New Zealand there are little metal fish-shaped plates pinned to the road by every drain, there to remind people that when you tip something down a drain, it ends up in a river. What this event really tells us is that we don’t care. We. Society. We don’t care. We chuck stuff down drains and don’t think about where it ends up or what it does. This time it was purple and apparently harmless and everyone noticed. Most of the time, no-one notices. And yet one drop of flea treatment on the back of a dog can kill all the insects in a long reach of river.

Meanwhile our chalk streams restoration strategy makes a number of strong recommendations endorsed by everyone involved, including the regulators and water industry, to reduce and eventually eliminate unsustainable abstraction (the definition of which is now agreed and meaningful), to reduce pollution in its various forms and to drive for physical habitat restoration. Some actions are already underway, the rest are being scoped and developed and will be outlined in an implementation plan this time next year.

There will be no Damascene moment on the road to restoring our chalk streams. To think there might be is naive. It has been and will remain an uphill struggle all the way, with progress made in incremental but important steps, collaboratively. As I said in my allegedly fine but empty speech: “you cannot fix rivers with words. You cannot fix them by insisting that someone else should fix them. You cannot fix them by the day after tomorrow. You cannot fix them if you haven’t worked out what’s wrong with them. You cannot fix them without working together – most likely with whoever, in your opinion, damaged the rivers in the first place. And you cannot fix them if you are not strategic about the way you do it.”

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