Down the Drain delves deep into issues around climate change and Cornwall’s fresh water – looking at everything from heavier rain leading to more sewage overflows, flooding and loss of topsoil, to how warmer river water is affecting fish, and the surprising carbon footprint of the water we use every day.
It also focuses on how people around Cornwall are working to tackle these problems – from farmers changing the way they manage their land to a project to ‘re-wet’ Bodmin Moor’s peat bogs, and efforts to reintroduce the beaver – which was driven to extinction in the UK about 400 years ago.
Presented by the ‘lone kayaker’ Rupert Kirkwood, this film takes us on a journey through Cornwall’s water cycle, and offers tips and solutions for how each of us can help to protect this vital resource that we all depend on.
Listen to Alan Burrows explaining about the hidden carbon footprint of our water, how we can all take steps to fight climate change through the way we use it, and how climate change itself can pose challenges to our water supply and the environment.
Bruce tells us in more depth about the challenges facing Cornwall’s salmon and the work to monitor them on the River Tamar
Jackie talks more about the need to ensure major development projects in Cornwall don’t lead to flooding problems – and the challenges around getting developments to incorporate the right kind of drainage.
Louisa explains in more detail about flood risk, emergency plans, property flood resilience and looming problems with insurance as the Flood Re scheme comes to an end.
Nick tells us more about how he got involved with monitoring his local river – and why it’s so important that as many as possible of us become champions for our local watercourses too.
Simon talks in greater depth about the intersecting problems of more industrial farming, a growing population, changing land use, and climate change – and how these all impact on the rivers we love.
Chris talks about how beavers have changed the environment and biodiversity on his farm – and talks more about different ways in which farmers could manage their land to be a big part of the solution to the climate and ecological emergencies.
Janet Lockyer recounts her experiences of being flooded twice - and the huge emotional impact and practical upheaval after the waters had subsided.
Save water, save money….and reduce carbon emissions
Cornwall’s population is growing, and climate change is not only bringing bursts of increasingly torrential rain – but also bringing longer drier periods.
The less water we use, the more there will be in the environment to keep our rivers healthy.
Using less water will also reduce carbon emissions. Because Cornwall is so large, with so many remote communities, a lot of chemicals and energy are used not just to treat our drinking water and sewage, but also to pump them around to where they need to be.
The average person in the South West Water region uses 143 litres of water a day right now. If each of us saved just five litres of water a day, that would save about 3.3 billion litres of water each year!
Switching to a water meter helps many people reduce water bills by up to £400 a year.
South West Water has an online calculator to help you estimate what your metered bill would be. If you have a meter installed it also gives you two years to revert back to unmetered bills if you change your mind.
There are also all sorts of water-saving solutions that can hugely cut water consumption.
These include low flow shower heads and taps, as well as very low flow or dual flush toilets (if you need to install a new toilet). If you have an old fashioned single flush toilet, a more sustainable option is simply the tried and trusted old trick of putting a brick or other solid object inside the cistern to reduce the amount of water used per flush.
Getting a water butt connected to your downpipes is a great way of saving water too, as well as helping to stop flooding. Store the water that’s run off your roof to use on your garden when your plants actually need it – they will do much better with rainwater than chlorinated tap water too.
If you’re renovating or building a house you could go a step further, cutting your mains water use by up to 50% by installing a full rainwater harvesting system. This enables you to capture much more of the rain that falls on your house – and use the collected water for your toilet and washing machine (as well as your garden).
The rainwater is collected in a large underground tank for later use. Imagine what a big impact it could have on flooding if every house had one of these!
Find out loads more simple water-saving tips here:
WATER POLLUTION – SEWAGE, RUN-OFF AND CHEMICALS
Would you like to join the army of volunteer citizen scientists out monitoring our local streams and rivers? You’d be amazed at what you will find…. and the data you collect could be invaluable, given the huge reduction in testing that the Environment Agency is able to do.
There are two main types of testing – chemical and biological.
The Westcountry Rivers Trust CSI (Citizen Science Investigations) initiative is a holistic river survey. Volunteers are trained in chemical water sampling as well as how to capture data on pollution sources, flow conditions, invasive plants, wildlife, sediment, etc. Find out more here
Riverfly testing is biological sampling – looking for the larval forms of a wide range of different flying insects. The number and type of creatures found can give a very good indication of the health of the river – and also about the nature of any recent pollution incidents. Find out more here:
Report pollution incidents
Despite the Environment Agency’s recent announcement that it no longer has the resources to respond to ‘minor’ pollution incidents, it is best still to report all cases so that they are logged for future reference.
Pollution incidents could be many things – run-off of topsoil from farmland into watercourses, sewage spills, dead fish, etc. Call the Environment Agency’s pollution incident hotline on: 0800-807060
Check the water before you get in!
There are several apps available so that swimmers, surfers and other water users can find out about water quality and CSO events (sewer spills) in their area.
While you might expect sewer spills in very rainy or stormy conditions (often when the waves are good!) they can also happen at times when you may not expect them, due to blockages or other issues.
Check out the Surfers Against Sewage Safer Seas app to see whether there have been any recent coastal sewer spills here
Check out the Rivers Trust’s online map ‘Is my river fit to play in’ to see the location of storm overflows near you and find out how much they spill: Click here
Help prevent sewer overflows from the comfort of your own home
Climate change will bring increasingly heavy and torrential rain – which will put more pressure on our old combined sewer system (where rainwater running off roads, buildings and farmland ends up in the same pipes as our domestic sewage).
This means combined sewer overflows (CSOs) are more likely to operate.
However, the situation is made much worse by blockages in the sewers. Many of these are caused by caused by ‘fatbergs’ – disgusting tangles of congealed fats and oils, mixed with non-biodegradable plastic items like wet wipes, nappies and tampon applicators.
Cooking oils are liquid in a warm kitchen, but they can solidify in a cold sewer, so they should always be disposed of in the bin.
And absolutely nothing should go down the toilet except pee, poo and paper. Wet wipes may look like they’re flushable, but they’re actually made from synthetic plastic fibres that just won’t break down, and sadly end up polluting the environment.
Don’t overload the sewer system
If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, don’t pave it over or lay down astroturf. These are not only bad for nature, killing all the life in the ground in that area, but they also prevent water from seeping gently into the soil.
The earth can store huge amounts of water in the ground – but the more hard, paved surfaces we create, the more we are reducing its capacity to act as a natural sponge and prevent flooding.
If you’re able to, plant a tree (or several trees!). Trees can suck up huge amounts of water, and their roots can also bind soil together, helping to prevent flooding. Some species, like willow and alder, love to have their ‘feet wet’ and will happily grow in boggy areas.
If you have a soakaway at your home, make sure it is properly maintained. If it’s blocked up with silt it’s just not going to work.
Keep drains clear – especially in autumn check that they’re not blocked up with leaves.
What else can you do to help our rivers?
Remember that nearly all the chemicals we use in our homes, gardens and cars will end up in water – whether that’s down the shower, sink or toilet, or by being washed directly into the environment.
Try to use products that are as gentle on the environment as possible – for example dish washing liquid, laundry detergents, toilet cleaners, cleaning products, etc.
Many garden and farm pesticides and weed killers do not break down in the environment and continue acting as poisons for a long time. This can have a serious impact on aquatic invertebrates, which are the base of the whole food chain relied upon by all the higher animals we know and love, such as fish, frogs, otters, kingfishers and swallows.
One possibly surprising source of poisons in our rivers is from external pet flea treatments, which can find their way into the water when dogs are washed or swim in rivers.
Flea treatment chemicals are incredibly potent – the amount of pesticide used to treat a single medium-sized dog would be enough to kill 60 million bees.
Around 80% of the 10 million dogs in the UK receive regular flea treatment, whether it’s needed or not. Fipronil, an insecticide and one of the most commonly used flea treatments, was found in 99% of samples taken from 20 rivers in a 2020 survey.
It’s best to treat your pet for fleas only if they actually have fleas – which are not usually active in winter – and best to ask your vet for internal flea tablets instead of using the external dab-on treatments.
Around 28,000 properties in Cornwall are already at potential risk from either surface water and river flooding, storm surges or coastal erosion, and this figure will increase in future.
Preparation is key!
Check whether your house – or a house you are thinking of buying or renting – is in a known flood risk area here
Sign up for flood alerts here
The Be Flood Ready site (https://www.befloodready.uk/) provides loads of useful and locally-tailored information on how to protect your property from flooding, how to cope and recover from flooding, advice and support: https://www.befloodready.uk/
Does your community or parish have an emergency plan?
How resilient would your town or village be in the case of a storm, flood or other emergency? Is there a plan for protecting people and property?
What about elderly neighbours, or people living in more remote or cut-off parts of your area?
Cornwall Community Flood Forum (https://www.cornwallcommunityfloodforum.org.uk/) provides information and support for communities, and training for volunteer flood wardens and response teams.
What about insurance?
Many people are worried about whether their insurance premiums will go up – or if they may even be unable to get insurance at all in future, especially if they have previously already had to make a claim.
The good news is that most homeowners will be protected thanks to the Flood Re scheme
Flood Re was set up to ensure flood risk will continue to be insured for permanently occupied residential properties that were built before 2009. (The Flood Re scheme compensates insurers to have to pay out for flood claims, and is funded from a pot paid from a proportion of all UK homeowner insurance policies).
Look at the Flood Re tool on this website to find out if your property qualifies: floodre.co.uk
Note that not all insurers use Flood Re, so check with your insurer that you will be covered.
Note that Flood Re does not cover businesses. If you are a business owner, check out Cornwall’s Flood Risk Snapshot service from Climate Vision (climatevision.co.uk), to help ready your business for the impacts of climate change.
Flood Re comes to an end in 2039. What happens then?
After 2039, many properties could become uninsurable and unmortgageable due to their flood risk.
In anticipation of this, the Government is planning to trial a system of flood performance certificates – similar to energy performance certificates.
These will grade properties based on their flood risk, which could be brought down depending on the type and amount of property flood resilience products installed, enabling people potentially to still be able to sell or insure their properties.
Remember, if you are considering property flood resilience products, always use a company that installs kite-marked products and works in line with the industry code of practice, surveying the property correctly.
Premier Water Solutions 10 Ltd, featured in our film Down the Drain, are one such reputable firm in Cornwall: premierwatersolutions.co.uk
Help protect peat
Peat covers only 3% of the world’s surface but is estimated to contain as much carbon as all the world’s forests!
But despite this, and its importance for flood protection and water storage, peat is still being burned over large areas in the UK to create the right conditions for grouse shooting.
It is also being dug up for compost – a lot of compost sold in UK garden centres contains peat.
Although it will become illegal to sell peat compost after 2024, in the meantime make sure you choose ‘100% peat free’ compost…. Or even better, make your own at home!
None of the British salmon you might see for sale in the supermarket is actually wild caught, because it is now so endangered.
What you see on sale will be farmed salmon, probably from salmon farms in Scotland. (although farmed salmon have a whole host of associated environmental issues – see more on the Plenty More Fish? page).
The sharp decline in salmon, due to a whole range of different pressures, has led to byelaws being put in place in Cornwall that now mean salmon may only be caught by anglers under a ‘catch and release’ scheme.
The Environment Agency advises that rod-caught salmon have a good chance of surviving if they are handled with care and released back into the water after no more than a few seconds.
Learn more about beavers and what they could do to help combat the climate and ecological emergencies, as well as providing natural flood solutions. Support the work of the Beaver Trust here: beavertrust.org
As a project to document the facts around climate change in Cornwall, we take our own carbon footprint very seriously and aim to tread as lightly as possible.
We operate in accordance with an environmental policy that covers everything from our transport (which accounts for the bulk of our emissions) and banking to data storage and battery charging.