Five ways we're working to restore rivers

Logo: The Rivers Trust

By Rebecca Duncan, Media & Events Lead

Infographic about the Rivers Trust movement in 2022

We are delighted to have been chosen as CJS’s charity of the year for 2024.

With so much in the news this year about river health and pollution, it probably isn’t necessary for me to tell you about the crises that our rivers are facing. It is clear they are increasingly subjected to an endless cycle of flood and drought as extreme weather conditions become more common in our changing climate; they have been straightened, concreted and controlled over centuries; and they continue to be bombarded with a cocktail of chemicals, plastics, nutrients and microbial pollution.

Not one river in England or Northern Ireland is classed as being ‘good overall’ and 99% of British rivers have artificial barriers obstructing fish movement and preventing them from functioning naturally.

We need our rivers to be healthy to help us thrive. A healthy river is the backbone of the landscape, helping us to cope with too little and too much water as well as tackling our declining nature and reaching Net Zero. Healthy rivers also help us socially - we know that access to blue spaces is integral to our mental and physical wellbeing.

In short, we need healthy rivers and they need our help.

So that is where we come in. The Rivers Trust movement is a network of more than 60 local charities across the UK and Ireland, each working to protect and improve rivers. Our vision is for wild, healthy, natural rivers, valued by all.

We are different to many other environmental NGOs in that we are not a landowning organisation, this means that partnerships are fundamental to everything we do and something we are expert at. Collaboration and working with landowners, local communities, scientists, the public, volunteers and partner organisations is at the core to the solutions we find to help our rivers. We take a science-led approach to identifying where we can provide the biggest improvements for local rivers and measuring the impact of our work. As a result, our movement is at the heart of delivering positive change for rivers.

Two men wading through a river installing woody debris
Installing woody debris on Cock Beck (Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust)

In 2022-2023, our collective efforts resulted in:

  • 340,623 trees planted
  • 904 natural flood management measures installed
  • 619 ha of wetland created or restored
  • 105 barriers to fish passage eased, passed or removed
  • Opening up 1,329 km of river for fish passage
  • 496 river clean ups
  • 14 sustainable drainage systems completed
  • 21,443 volunteers involved
  • 4,478 farmers engaged
  • 26,326 school pupils inspired


All of our work is driven by 5 strategic principles we are committed to:

1. Working with nature

Using engineering to solve environmental problems such as flooding is sometimes necessary, but is also expensive and carbon-intensive. We always look to implement nature-based solutions where possible, which work with the natural environment to deliver multiple benefits for nature and people.

Interventions such as planting trees, restoring wetlands and installing sustainable drainage schemes makes river catchments more resilient to climate change, and address issues including pollution, flooding, drought and habitat loss. Health, wellbeing and amenity benefits for communities are also a wonderful benefit of nature-based solutions.

2. Democratising data

The Rivers Trust movement champions open, accessible and understandable data. Freely sharing data in an interactive and engaging way allows people to understand the true state of our rivers and the pressures on them. This transparency means people can be better informed on the health of rivers and empowered to make the right decisions on how they interact with them.

A lot of the data we share is through the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA), which brings together environmental stakeholders to create a more integrated future for water management. As CaBA secretariat, we support more than 10 themed data hubs which gather all relevant data in one place. An example of this is the Tree Hub, launched in 2022, which helps landowners identify the best places to plant trees.

Group of people with nets wading in a river doing Water Sampling.
Water sampling (Bristol Avon Rivers Trust)

3. Collaboration and partnerships

Collaborating with key private, public and third sector partners is vital for us to deliver the change that rivers need to thrive. The evidence shows us that everything happening on land affects rivers, so, as a non-landowning organisation we cannot work in isolation. We play a vital role in bringing people and organisations with a stake in the health of our rivers together, including those impacting on them negatively.

With rivers becoming a more prominent issue for the public and in the media, more and more groups are now recognising the role they have to play in protecting the freshwater environment. We are proud to work with landowners, businesses, government, water companies, local authorities, fellow eNGOs, academics and community groups in the fight for saving our rivers. Whether it’s through funding opportunities, legislative change, water management practices of raising awareness, our movement is renowned for fostering these unique partnerships.

4. Connecting with communities

Almost 30 years ago in 1994, the first Rivers Trust was set up by local people in the West Country demanding better for their rivers. Now, we have nearly 70 local Trusts and are still growing. In the last six months, the Great Ouse Rivers Trust was formed to give our movement complete coverage across England and Wales. We now have close to 20 Trusts on the island of Ireland, and are forging ever-closer links with Fisheries Management Scotland. However, our founding principle of being a grassroots movement still holds true today.

Local Rivers Trusts work deep in the heart of the community, leading the public in a variety of conservation events from river clean ups to invasive species removal or habitat creation. The importance of high-quality green and blue space for community health and wellbeing is increasingly acknowledged, whether that’s an officially designated bathing water site or a simple rain garden on your local hight street. We are working at a local, regional and national level to ensure that people everywhere can enjoy healthy rivers.

5. Influence and advocacy

While our local Trusts do incredible work on the ground, we work collectively to engage leaders across all sectors, including politicians, the civil service, businesses, farmers and other NGOs. These key stakeholders have the power to implement systemic, long-term landscape change which would restore the health of rivers as well as the wider environment. We want those influential people to know that a better freshwater future is both vital and achievable.

This work has led to some really important achievements in the last few years. Since we launched the first iteration of our Sewage Map in 2019, river pollution has been catapulted to the forefront of the national conversation in England. By working with other charities such as Surfers Against Sewage and calling on public support, we have influenced government policy in the form of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan and the Plan for Water. Our work is not done though, as we must ensure those plans are implemented. We also still have a long way to go in tackling other key issues such as chemical pollution and road runoff.

Kayaker on a river on a sunny day
Kayaker (Moy Williams for The Rivers Trust)

Forming coalitions with like-minded environmental groups is a key way to amplify our message, presenting a unified, consistent voice for nature. The Rivers Trust is a long-term member of several coalitions including the Freshwater Taskforce in Northern Ireland, An Fóram Uisce in Ireland, as well as Blueprint for Water, The Missing Salmon Alliance, End Sewage Pollution Coalition and Riverscapes in Britain.

All this work is enough to keep us very busy, and our movement is growing rapidly to make sure we can deliver on our ambitions. We’re thrilled to be partnering with Countryside Jobs Service for 2024 so that we can reach the best people, who can help our movement to thrive as we grow into the future.

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Posted On: 12/12/2023

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