JDense fog hangs over the high moor where the river rises in a swampy desert. It rushes over granite slabs and cascades over rocks, skirts small oak trees amid the coconut flavor of yellow gorse, before picking up its pace, fueled, finally, by a few days of rain.
Twenty-three miles downstream, its brackish flow rushes into a steep estuary where paddleboarders ride the shifting tides and surfers hit the swells of Bigbury Bay.
On its journey from the highest peaks of South Dartmoor in Devon, the River Avon plays host to egrets and herons, entertains anglers in search of brown trout and salmon, provides open water for swimmers and arranges its banks to paddle the children and picnic the hikers. Witnesses to its course change over the years, but it remains, seemingly a constant force, rising from its source and dragged by gravity out to sea.
“Physically he hasn’t changed much since I started fishing him 30 years ago,” said John Roberts, president of the Avon Fishing Association. “To me it’s beautiful, a lot of it is still intact and I love being there. It’s just a peaceful, calming place.
A comfort to so many, the river is in an area of outstanding natural beauty and its estuary is a marine conservation area. And yet, despite appearances, it is not immune to the threats and pressures that threaten so many of Britain’s waterways. In recent years, UK rivers have been gripped by a deepening crisis, with a chemical cocktail of sewage, agricultural waste and other pollution suffocating biodiversity and endangering public health . .
The Avon fails water quality tests that measure its proximity to its natural state. It suffers from pollution, high phosphate levels, low flows, high temperatures, flash floods, drought, and obstructions to its natural movement. While the Wye in Wales visibly show their distress with misty waters the color of pea soup, the stress on the Avon may not be so immediate.
“In Devon we don’t have examples like in the River Wye where there are these visible algae problems because our rivers are shorter and faster, but these problems are very present and they are transmitted to estuary and coastal environment,” said Simon Browning of the Rivers Trust.
The first sign of a river in distress is often found in its fish and the Avon, also known as the Aune, is no different. Roberts has witnessed declining salmon numbers over the past 10 years or so. “The problem for all of us is the declining salmon population,” he said. “In 2010, our association caught 56 salmon. Last year there were only four caught and I think that tells us a lot about the factors affecting the river itself.
Downstream from the source of the river on a side of Ryder’s Hill in Dartmoor, the Avon Dam rises, holding the river back in a vast reservoir that can hold 1,313 million liters of water. Built in 1957 to supply water to Plymouth and surrounding areas, it is a testament to the vitality of the Avon waters for local people. After the driest July in over 100 years, water levels are noticeably low.
For the habitats and biodiversity of the river itself, however, the dam is an obstacle and a pressure, which directly contributes to the decline of salmon populations. “The Avon Dam restricts the natural flow of the river and stops the movement of gravel so the salmon can spawn,” said Dr Laurence Couldrick, chairman of the Westcountry Rivers Trust.
Couldrick and his team are doing their part to help, adding granite gravel to the river below the dam, which is carried downstream with the flow, providing a place for fish to spawn as they travel upriver.
“The problems of a river like the Avon are multifaceted and very complicated, and as a society it’s easy to focus on one thing, right now it’s drought, in a few months that will be the risk flooding, then water pollution, but everything is interconnected, everything is pressure on a river,” he said.
Others along the Avon’s path step in to help him as he rushes. In South Brent, a large village, the waters divide around an island, a focal point since it was purchased by the community in 1994. Guy Pannell, a parish councilor who helped raise funds to purchase the field, said the efforts of local people created a fishway through a dam to help the salmon; a mark of their closeness to the Avon and their concern for its waters and habitats. “It’s a wonderful river, we have trout and otters and you can watch the salmon leaping upstream, we have spotted kingfishers and divers. We are here to protect it and ensure that it can continue to be enjoyed.
In addition to low river flows and obstructions, pollution affects local species and industries that the Avon can support. There are three Southwest Water Treatment Plants, as well as Combined Sewer Discharge Lines, along the river. Dr Stuart Watts, president of the Aune Conservation Association, warned on his Facebook page that the discharge of raw sewage into the river is “an intolerable public health situation as the upper estuary is increasingly used by wild swimmers, SUP [standup paddleboarding] users, canoeists, etc.
According to Environment Agency figures, raw sewage and sewage – which should only be discharged in exceptional circumstances – was dumped into the Avon via storm overflows for 1,355.5 hours in 2021 in 237 separate incidents.
South West Water admits in documents that “overflows in this watershed may impact the following swimming beaches/shellfish waters; Bantham Beach, Avon”.
For one industry, oyster farming, the impact of pollution has been devastating. Thirty-three years ago, the popular restaurant the Oyster Shack was born when seafood lovers flocked to buy Avon’s farm-fresh produce. Now new owner Kieron Vanstone can no longer source oysters from the Avon as levels of E coli in the river led to its classification being downgraded to the lowest C grade for much of the year.
“It’s sad and disappointing,” Vanstone said. “You can see the river from the restaurant and I wanted to have them from the Avon, but we couldn’t.”
As well as discharging untreated sewage, sewage treatment plants in Aveton Gifford, a village at the top of the Avon Estuary, and further upstream in Loddiswell and South Brent, discharge their treated sewage into the river after testing and monitoring by the water company itself. It’s a test diet that some consider too light.
“South West Water has to submit the results of 12 samples a year to Aveton Gifford, but they only test a few things – it’s a very, very low bar – so some of the things that water users are most concerned about, like phosphate and bacteria levels, just aren’t monitored,” Browning said.
According to the Rivers Trust, the water sector contributed to more than half of England’s river water bodies (53%) failing to achieve good status in 2020 from treated and untreated waste water .
Along its course, the Avon crosses a steep-sided valley, grazed by cattle and planted with crops and wood. For 10 years, Lynne Kenderdine of the Devon Wildlife Trust has scaled the river landscape to work with farmers and landowners. “My work is totally focused on getting the best deal for the environment,” she said. “We had problems with runoff in the river. Some very large barns have been built with large numbers of dairy cattle and improper application of slurry, as well as crops like rye that need chemicals and fertilizers, grown in a steep valley, so there is more of work to do. ”
While its source is on a remote hill in Dartmoor, the Avon’s odyssey ends at the beaches of Bigbury Bay, where thousands of holidaymakers gather to surf, swim and play. The land, river and beach here are managed by the Bantham Estate, who say the farmland is carefully managed to enhance the beauty and wildlife of the area.
“River management goes hand in hand with that,” said Nicholas Johnston, the estate’s owner. “This is responsible and sustainable access at a time when water sports, paddleboarding and swimming are hugely popular. South West Water is making huge money and it shouldn’t be beyond their abilities to find a solution to stop them dumping dirty water into the river. I am extremely concerned if there is a possibility of untreated or treated sewage impacting water quality as far down the river as this.
Two days after the first rains in months, her concerns are clearly illustrated by a small yellow notice on Bantham beach. “This bathing water is subject to short-term pollution…a pollution risk warning is issued in the event of heavy rainfall to enable bathers to avoid periods when the quality of the bathing water may be reduced .”
A South West Water spokesperson said: ‘As part of our commitment to protecting the natural environment, we are carrying out our largest environmental investment program in 15 years. This will significantly reduce our use of storm overflows, maintain our region’s excellent bathing water quality standards throughout the year and eliminate our impact on river water quality by 2030.”