£2m water quality project to protect river ecosystems

Published: 28 November 2022

Researchers from the University of Glasgow are lending their support to a new project to explore how pollution and climate change are impacting freshwater ecosystems for the first time

Researchers from the University of Glasgow are lending their support to a new project led by the University of Stirling to explore how pollution and climate change are impacting freshwater ecosystems for the first time.

The study, which has been awarded funding of £2 million from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), will investigate how pollutants interact with rivers and ecosystems, and devise a system to monitor and measure pollution.

Professor Andrew Tyler, the Scotland Hydro Nation Chair and project lead, said: “Our rivers and freshwater species are being challenged by a bewildering combination of pollutant cocktails including pharmaceuticals, pesticides, illicit drugs and micro plastics – the effects of which are poorly understood.

“Now more than ever, climate change is warming waters, increasing flooding and changing rainfall intensity, coupled with increased urbanisation.

“This research will transform our knowledge in this area and use innovative technologies and transformative data analytics to improve our understanding of how climate and evolving mixtures of pollutants interact and ultimately impact on freshwater ecosystems.”

Using next generation sensors and satellite monitoring, experts will assess water pathways, follow pollutants and monitor the impact of contaminants on freshwater environments. The team will also call on existing national data to investigate the impacts of longer-term exposure to pollutant cocktails across the UK on water quality and ecosystems health whilst also identifying effective solutions.

The project, MOT4Rivers, also includes experts from the James Hutton Institute, UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and is supported by Scottish Water.

Professor Marian Scott, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Mathematics & Statistics, is one of the leaders of MOT4Rivers’ analytics team. Professor Scott said: “MOT4Rivers has the potential to make a real impact on the quality of UK freshwaters.

“New sensor technology, supported by high-quality analysis, gives us the chance to tackle pollution in our rivers and their supporting ecosystems. I’m looking forward to working with colleagues to develop our understanding the impact of environmental changes on microbial form and function.”

George Ponton, Head of Research and Innovation at Scottish Water, said: “This project tackles key questions on the impact of both individual climate extreme events on releasing an increasingly complex cocktail of pollutants from society to aquatic ecosystems and the longer term climate change implications on water quality management across the UK.
“Finding effective solutions to these challenges is part of our strategy to deliver net zero across the water sector.”

The study’s findings will be reported in mid-2025, with the research team hopeful the results will inform priorities for policy, regulation and investment in measures to promote sustainable freshwater ecosystems under a changing climate.

Water Minister Rebecca Pow said: "The stresses that are placed on our rivers are many and complex, from growing urban development to farming practices, increased diversity of chemicals and pharmaceuticals used by society, and pollution pressure from transport.

"We are going further and faster than any other government to protect and enhance the health of our rivers, including taking action to end the environmental damage caused by sewage spills.

"This funding is welcome. It will enable researchers to carry out vital studies monitoring and measuring pollution that find its way into our precious water courses. Monitoring the impacts of climate change will also be important.

"This knowledge will be used to improve the water quality in our rivers, bringing benefits now and into the future."

First published: 28 November 2022