A River Goyt Update from Andrew Griffiths
Many of you will remember that last year was not a good year for our rivers here in New Mills. First the Sett was polluted when a sewerage pipe cracked and spilled raw sewage into our little stream (from which it is still recovering) and then a long standing industrial pollution situation in the Goyt worsened to the extent that an horrific growth of sewage fungus choked out the river in the local beauty spot at Mousley Bottom.
The wonderful river conservation charity the Wild Trout Trust has been – and continues to be – incredibly supportive in advising us how to get these rivers back on their feet again (so to speak) and one of their scientists and conservation officers, Dr Paul Gaskell, came along last Autumn and wrote a report on the condition of the Rivers Sett and Goyt.
Again, many of you will have already read this report but for those that haven’t it can be downloaded from the Wild Trout Trust website – link at the end of this article.
The report is quite long and in depth, so I thought it might be helpful if, with the blessing of the good folk at Visit New Mills site, I wrote a couple of short articles to deal with the main issues – these are our rivers, our town’s assets and it is important that the whole community has a say in how we look after them.
An executive summary of the report would read something like: ‘We have a couple of lovely stretches of river here [well we knew that, that is why we love them so much and so many people come here to visit them] but we do have ongoing problems with water quality that need dealing with.’ Sadly we knew that too – see above about cracked sewerage pipe and ongoing industrial pollution – not to mention CSO discharges, in common with rivers all over the UK.
The other issue, which I want to deal with first here, is weirs. ‘But what about our weirs?’ you might say, ‘Our weirs are beautiful and a part of our industrial history and they are a big reason people come to visit the Torrs.’ To which I would reply: ‘Well yes but… actually, weirs can be quite bad for a river.’ Folks, we need to talk about weirs.
Cast your minds back to your GCSE geography lessons and you’ll remember that at its simplest, a river is not just a flow of water from up in the hills down to the sea, but a flow of stones and gravels and sediments too. These sediments are carried by the energy of the river. If we build a weir we slow down the flow of the river, which causes the sediments and gravels that were being carried downstream to ‘drop out’ and be deposited upstream, behind the weir.
If you want to see this in action, look at the river above the big weir in the Torrs, above the hydro, and compare it with the bed of the river immediately downstream. You’ll see that upstream the river is very silty, where the fine sediment has clogged up the riverbed, while downstream there are only big boulders left, there are hardly any fine gravels being brought down. Any anglers reading this who have tried to wade down there will know how dangerous it is!
You will see the same effect at the Torr Vale Mill weir:
Why does this matter? It matters because it interferes with the natural ecology of the river. The fish need these loose, well oxygenated gravels to build their nests in and spawn, the insects need them to complete their life cycles in, both the fish and the birds need the insects to eat to live, both the birds and the otters need the fish to eat to live… and so the cycle turns. But choke up the gravels with all that silt and you put a great big spoke in the wheel.
This is why you will see weirs being pulled out of rivers all over the country, now that they are largely redundant. But, it is all a question of balance. The ecology of the river isn’t the whole story, the cultural aspects of its history and its industrial archaeology are important too. It is a question of getting that balance right and at the moment it is skewed too much towards the history and we need to move it more towards the ecology, to give the river a fighting chance.
Fortunately, this isn’t an ‘all or nothing’ situation, compromises are possible. Nobody is talking about pulling out the weirs here, and it is probably too late to do anything with the big weir in the Torrs anyway. What we can do though is ‘notch’ the smaller weirs, that is pull out a bit of them that will restore some flow to the river, flush out some of that silt, and allow fish to move more freely up and down the river corridor. In practice, given that these weirs are slowly falling apart anyway, it would just mean giving time a bit of a helping hand and a few more stones a bit of a push.
These rivers are so much a part of our town’s history and the weirs in the Torrs are so much a part of the river, I think it is important that the community has the opportunity to have its say and understand why some of us want to change things a bit. We’ll be opening discussions with the relevant local authorities and the Environment Agency soon, and of course seeking further expert advice.
If you’d like to follow the debate and contribute to it, please consider joining our Friends of the Goyt group on Facebook. The full report on the River Goyt and Sett, written by the Wonderful Wild Trout Trust and which goes into much more detail than here, can be downloaded from: https://www.wildtrout.org/av/rivers-goyt-sett-derbyshire-advisory-visit
(Andrew writes news and features for newspapers and magazines including BBC Wildlife Magazine and BBC Countryfile Magazine.)