Chemists at the University of Bath will be partners on two major research collaborations to help improve the water quality of UK rivers, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and Defra.
Currently, most UK rivers fail to have good ecological status, with only 14% of waterways in England, less than half in Wales, 50% in Scotland and less than a third in Northern Ireland meeting the healthy threshold.
Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, from the University’s Water Innovation and Research Centre, WIRC@Bath, and the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies (CSCT) is leading the research team at Bath for two projects that will investigate the impact of chemicals on freshwater microbes, and the effects of livestock manure entering the waterways on river quality and the freshwater ecosystem.
Bath is involved in two of only five projects, each worth over £1.5 million, funded by NERC and Defra as part of the £8.4 million Understanding changes in quality of UK Freshwaters programme.
PAthways of Chemicals Into Freshwaters and their ecological ImpaCts (PACIFIC)
Led by the UK Centre of Ecology & Hydrology, and also including collaborators at the University of Oxford and the Environment Agency, PACIFIC will use mass spectrometry techniques to identify traces of manufactured chemicals in rivers across the Thames and Bristol Avon catchment areas.
The research aims to understand how these chemical pollutants impact the structure and function of bacteria and fungal microbe communities that naturally live in waterways, monitoring the effects on their ability to process nutrients and the activity of chemical stress and resistance genes.
They aim to develop models to predict the scale of chemical pollutant threats to river ecosystems, and determine exposure thresholds.
Quantifying the impacts of livestock farming practices on UK rivers (QUANTUM)
The second project, QUANTUM, is led by the University of Bristol including research partners at the University of Exeter and Lancaster University. This project will monitor the levels of pollution from livestock farming in 52 regions across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Manure from farm animals contaminates water by affecting turbidity (reducing light penetration), nutrient and oxygen levels, and can contain agrichemicals such as antibiotics and anti-parasitic treatments, as well as hormones and pathogens.
The researchers aim to monitor the composition of livestock manure that ends up in rivers, understand how freshwater biology is affected by it, and how different livestock practices and waste management approaches can minimise the ecological impact.
Professor Kasprzyk-Hordern said: "We are really excited to be involved in two of five major projects funded by the NERC investigating how pollution impacts UK rivers.
"Freshwater ecosystems are under severe stress from a cocktail of pollutants, including industrial chemicals, microplastics, pharmaceuticals and livestock farming practices.
"This can impact the stability of the aquatic food chain, make water unfit for bathing, and means water must be treated more intensively to make sure it’s suitable for drinking.
"I’m looking forward to working with our collaborators to create better tools to monitor and measure pollution, and better understand how water pollution affects our wider environment."