We must have had a month’s rain at the beginning of last week. It’s been warm and sunny today, with one intense shower that didn’t last long. The forecast’s for unsettled weather for a few more days, which is wonderful for the allotment after such a dry Spring.
Water is precious. There is no mains supply here. No hoses snaking along the main path, no grumblings or muttering about other people hogging the taps. Still, we have the Ouseburn flowing along by the edge of the site, down towards the River Tyne, there for when we’ve exhausted rain water collected over winter. This year the tank and barrels have emptied sooner than expected.
The walk isn’t such a problem; we have access to running water after all, and we learn the value of water in a very physical way, in the time and energy expended carrying buckets. Three trips, collecting twelve buckets. Ten is enough to fill the metal dustbin, leaving two to top up as we feed thirsty plants. Twenty four buckets fills our blue barrel. The main water tank will be left to collect water as and when it rains.
Open composting and collecting seaweed, to cover beds that don’t have over wintering plants, has improved the soil but it’s still dry, powdery in places. Silt on top of clay. It’ll take longer than the year we’ve been on the current plot to significantly improve soil structure.
Still, we have the river, but that presents its own hazards. Images of a foaming Ouseburn appeared on social media, and in the local press, during the middle of April, with more sightings towards the end of the month. At the beginning of May a major incident was declared by the Enviroment Agency. The results of analysis haven’t been made public, but the cause was: it entered the Ouseburn through surface water drainage. Someone had poured something noxious down the drain. Notices appeared in Jesmond Dene telling people not to enter the water, or allow their dogs to play in the river.
This wasn’t an isolated incident. In October 2011 the Ouseburn was polluted by what the Environment Agency said could have been industrial detergents. The source was traced to a pipe near Salters Bridge.
In 2014 there were reports of the river turning, a murky green colour. […] Northumbrian Water used a vacuum tank to remove a pollutant that had been dumped into a sewer.
These incidents are visually dramatic, they attract the attention of social media, television, local newspapers. They give us cause for concern in a very direct physical way. They might also been seen as local incidents, soon forgotten, until the next time.
Research conducted in 1995, describes the area the Ouseburn runs through as a part-urban and part rural catchment of varied land-use and includes a tributary which drains the Newcastle International Airport. The tributary contributes only 3–5% of the river’s average flow, yet it had a disproportionately adverse impact upon the river. […] linked to the airport’s winter application of urea salt de-icers. […] During cold weather, higher levels of ammonia were recorded in the tributary and downstream, and concentrations peaked during runoff events.
A water quality survey published in 2012 which focused on pollution in the Ouseburn, particularly faecal contamination, concluded that, contamination levels are unacceptable but generally pollution is heavily localised. […] The pollution faced by the Ouseburn is believed to be under threat by further urbanisation in combination with an ever-changing climate in the future. There is a risk that identified under-performing infrastructure will become overwhelmed and deteriorate further. Jesmond Dene, not far from our allotment site, was an area of particular interest, because of the implications of upstream pollution. While the Dene was, and is, popular with children bathing during the summer months, the survey pointed out that, The EA does not recognise it as a bathing water and the relevant standards are not enforced. Bathing waters are monitored weekly by the agency to detect the presence of pollution from sewage or livestock. Precisely those pollutants identified as causes for concern in the report.
These are not just local problems, the result of our industrial history. The latest data published by the Environment Agency last autumn (2020) shows that all English water bodies failed to meet pollution tests due to sewage discharges as well as agricultural and industrial chemicals entering the water system. We are part of a much larger problem, in need of local solutions.
We’re fine at the moment. The torrential rain during the early part of last week has thoroughly soaked the soil, the barrel and bin are full, and the main tank has rain water in it, but the ground will soon dry, and plants are thirsty. We’ll have to resume water collection soon, as we have no alternative at the moment. And we water the plants sparingly anyway.