Frequent littering, oil spills and pollution have devastated Sheffield’s rivers and waterways, putting many wildlife species at risk.

Kate Marron examines the damage that has been done, and the community efforts that could save Sheffield’s waterways.

With the first episode of the long awaited Blue Planet being released at the end of last month, it has become even more evident that the planet we inhabit is teeming with an incomparable amount of marine life. But the biodiversity of the global, and by extension our local, waterways is at risk due to the large amounts of pollution. Although agencies are hard at work trying to reverse the devastating effects of littering, accidental oil spills and general water contamination, the remanence of pollution is still visible in many of the central waterways in the city.

Fly tipping makes up a large part of this, with the national cost of resolving the problem costing organisations like the Canal and River Trust up to £1 million pounds a year. People use the waterways as their own personal dumping ground for a variety of things from small wrappers and cans to more substantial items such as shopping trolleys, oil drums and even old cars.

The rivers Don, Loxley Sheaf, Porter, and Rivelin and the various canals, ponds, streams and lakes make up Sheffield’s waterway system.

Oil spills from years ago also remain an ongoing problem, with clean ups proving to be extremely costly. When the sediments that have been impacted by oil are disturbed they release the oil into water, which greatly disturbs the wildlife and ecosystems found in the area. More obscurely however, local residents often pollute the waterways by feeding bread to ducks. The leftovers uneaten by ducks have lead to an increase of vermin and bacteria throughout some of Sheffield’s rivers. This greatly increases the risk of disease, harmful to the local wildfowl that the local community is feeding.

Sheffield’s waterways are home to an array of plants marine life and birds including salmon, kingfishers and herons, many of which are drawn to the heart of the city as the follow the path of the rivers and canals. Despite pollution putting this at risk, Sheffield City Council is working closely with the Canal and River trust and Environment Agency to resolve the issues throughout the area.

Kelham island’s canal way is just one of the examples of local waterways in sheffield. Although cleaner than some other city based canals, rubbish can still be found along the banks.

After many years of work, the outlook is looking positive despite more progress still yet to be made. 2014 saw the construction of a new fish and eel pass in the River Don, allowing salmon and trout to migrate down towards Sheffield. A year later rare Lampreys were caught in the river, which is an indication of good water quality. The Lampreys were later released back into the water after being recorded. This was a significant stepping stone in the progress of the conservation work as it marked a turning point in an area which had previously been so negatively affected by pollution.

The various clean up events often reveal the thoughtlessness of individuals.

Ongoing projects ensure that these improvements ensure that this progress continues, tackling both the new and long-standing problems the pose a threat to the habitats. The Canal Trust is working to raise awareness of feeding wildfowl; encouraging people to use peas and salad leaves among other things as healthy alternatives to bread. Additionally, local communities are now adopting various stretches of canals, or volunteering to man clean up events to remove the debris thrown into the river.

Project AWARE also runs throughout parts of Sheffield, as part of internationally recognised scuba diving association PADI, . Diveworld, a five-star dive centre found based in Sheffield, has taken part in many of these events. They are now working closely with Rivelin Valley Conservation Group to organise regular clean ups to keep the water free from plastic contamination. This is one of the many examples where local collectives of people are working together to ensure the preservation of the environment around Sheffield.

The pollution and rubbish in the waters is harmful to the plants and animals that live in the waterways.

The University itself has also got involved. The signing of the ‘City of Rivers’ marked a commitment to the rehabilitation of Sheffield Waterways. Research into the impact of hydropower schemes have also taken place within the University’s Geography department.

The various clean up events often reveal the thoughtlessness of individuals, who are unwilling to dispose of items in the proper manner, but also demonstrate the willingness of a community who are dedicated to preserving their local area. Without the collective work of both organisations and local volunteers, Sheffield’s waterways would not have improved to such a vast extent.

The canals, rivers and lakes of Sheffield may not be home to the colourful range of animals featured on Blue Planet 2, but the wildlife is far from non-existent. In order to preserve it further, local residents are being encouraged to be more actively involved with upkeep and preservation projects, through both active awareness and preservation.

Image credit: Kate Marron

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