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How Local Research Links to Defra’s New Water Restoration Fund

This week the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs or Defra have launched the Water Restoration Fund (WRF). The fund has two types of grants, development and delivery awards. They both fund projects that restore and improve water and wetland environments such as:

  • rivers and their headwaters
  • canals
  • lakes
  • ponds
  • wetlands – both freshwater and saltwater
  • estuarine waters


Projects delivered through the Water Restoration Fund could be informed by recent research at The University of Essex.

Dr Martin Wilkes (University of Essex) completed a study prioritising river restoration actions in England, now accepted for publication in the international journal River Research and Applications. Along with collaborators from the River Restoration Centre, University of Leeds and UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Dr Wilkes analysed more than 30 million freshwater invertebrate abundance records to predict the contributions of four major restoration actions to the achievement of national species abundance targets under alternative climate change and socioeconomic scenarios. The team found that a combination of morphological restoration (e.g. re-meandering, weir removal) with reductions in in nitrate and phosphorus concentrations were priority actions in most areas – including Essex and Suffolk (Figure 1). The accepted manuscript can be read in full here.


How Local Research Links to Defra's New Water Restoration Fund | Essex Rivers Hub
Research from the University of Essex that could inform the Water Restoration Fund.

Figure 1. Projected contributions of four river restoration actions to the species abundance target, including abstraction (reductions in water withdrawals), morphology (removal of channel modifications), nitrates (50% reductions relative to long-term mean concentrations) and total dissolved phosphorus (TDP; 50% reductions relative to long-term mean concentrations). TRUE indicates that the action was identified as part of an optimal restoration strategy in that area under most climate and socioeconomic scenarios.


The results are already being considered by Defra to gauge the scale of effort required to deliver the species abundance targets. In combination with local knowledge, the findings could also be used to inform the design of local river restoration schemes – including those delivered through the Water Restoration Fund. The team are actively developing a tool to enable river restoration practitioners to explore the findings in more detail, and plan integrate a wider range of targets and restoration actions in the near future.

Anyone interested in exploring how the approach can be used to support local river restoration designs can contact Martin on

Please see here for guidance and the application form.

Applications for all grants are open until 11.59pm on Friday 7 June 2024.

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The topics below represent the pressures that many waterbodies in the Combined Essex catchment face. They have been divided into six main categories, but it is quite often that these categories can overlap as pressures relate to each other.

Diffuse pollution occurs as water moves across the land or through the ground and picks pollutants. These pollutants can come from a variety of places, including urban and field run off. The pollutants that enter the river can range from sediment to toxins to excess nutrients, meaning that diffuse pollution can cause a whole range of different issues. The variety in these pressure groups means that it is something that can be quite difficult to tackle. It requires groups of people, business and stakeholders to work together in order to solve this problem.

Fish should be able to travel up and down a river freely, allowing them to move and breed in the most suitable habitats for them. It is important that fish populations do not become isolated, as this makes them more susceptible to disease and puts pressure on their survival. Unfortunately, there are often many barriers along rivers that prevent fish from being able to migrate up and down stream. Where barriers have been identified, they will be seen as a ‘pressure’ on a waterbody. Thankfully, there are many solutions now that can be put in place to aid fish passage, even over large barriers.

The flow in a river can vary greatly throughout the year as rainfall and run off can have an effect. This is a natural process. It is when flow is impacted by non-natural processes that it can cause problems. Sometimes, water can be intercepted or removed from a system; this will reduce the flow, therefore changing the habitat conditions. Some species are happy in high energy rivers. This means that when flow is reduced, these species will no longer survive. The opposite of this can occur when excess water is entering a river, for example through increased runoff. Low energy systems then become high energy and displace the species that live there.

A species that is not meant to be found in a particular area is known as an invasive species. Invasive species can be from a different habitat or a different country altogether. Most of the invasive species that we find on our rivers have come from other countries – plants that people have imported for their gardens or animals that have been released for food or by animal rights activists. Control of invasive species requires a lot of time and effort. We are fortunate that we do have a range of methods to manage most of the invasive species that cause havoc on our rivers, but there are still some which we are still struggling to control.

Many of our rivers have been heavily modified over the years as rivers have been used for a wide range of purposes. Physical modification is one of the biggest factors that causes our rivers to be unhealthy. The issues that it can cause range from reducing habitat, preventing migration of mobile species, and even have an effect on the water quality. Where structures and modifications are no longer in use or necessary, they should be removed to allow the river to regain its natural state. Unfortunately, this action is not always taken which means that many of our rivers are over straightened and contain redundant structures. It is possible to return a lot of our rivers to their natural state, through one off projects, but in other cases it is not possible as the river has been changed to protect assets or manage flooding. It is recognised that some modifications cannot be removed without having severe negative impacts both socially and economically.

This is pollution that comes from a single identifiable source. The pollution entering the river could include a whole range of pollutants. Some point source pollution is known about and licences, for example sewage treatment works. Other sources are not licensed, and therefore work needs to be done with landowners to fix the problems that are allowing the pollution to enter the river. Point source pollution is more easily controlled than diffuse pollution as it often only takes one management approach to solve the issue.