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Ouseburn testing

Research identifies sources of pollution in the Ouseburn river

Published on: 11 September 2023

Newcastle University Scientists have used innovative techniques to investigate water quality in the Ouseburn following public concerns regarding pollution in the river.

The research was funded by the Reece Foundation and informs a wider partnership also involving Northumbrian Water, Newcastle City Council, North Tyneside Council, and the Environment Agency looking at the health of The Ouseburn as a vital green corridor through the city. 

The study aims were firstly to assess and attribute pollution to its sources, and then to work towards sustainable solutions.

The team from Newcastle University’s School of Engineering published their findings in the journal Science of The Total Environment, after the scientists carried out an extensive programme of sampling in different weather conditions across eight sampling locations that comprised rural, urban, and recreational land use settings. An innovative methodology using eDNA sequencing data was used to look at the sources of bacteria in the river.

Professor David Werner, Professor in Environmental Systems Modelling at Newcastle University, said: “Our approach combines conventional and innovative environmental DNA (eDNA) based methods to generate multiple lines of evidence for assessing water quality in the Ouseburn.

“Our research in the summer and early autumn in 2021 showed that bacterial water quality in the Ouseburn is highly variable, and during one September storm, 72-77% of all bacteria in the Ouseburn downstream of South Gosforth originated from the sewer system.

“The Ouseburn is not designated as a Bathing Water which means microbial water quality is not routinely monitored in Jesmond Dene Park.  Our work shows why microbial water quality should be monitored where rivers flow through public parks, irrespective of their bathing water status. Unfortunately, such monitoring is not required by current regulations so for people looking for advice, I have written on the five ways to know if a river is polluted and whether it’s safe to go in the water.

“The sampling and data sharing is essential for identifying the sources and impacts of pollution in the river so that the partners can work together to improve river’s health. We are pleased to see that first steps are already being taken to improve the quality of the Ouseburn in the two years since the samples were taken.

“We look forward to continuing working with the partners to take the learnings from this study forward and make sure we can all enjoy a healthy Ouseburn.”

Water quality analysis 

Anne Reece, Chair of the Reece Foundation, said:

“We asked Newcastle University to carry out the water quality analysis of the Ouseburn because we were concerned that the reduction in water quality and specifically pollution from human sewage was having a very detrimental effect on the Ouseburn valley as a healthy green space for people and wildlife.

The research has, by using innovatory techniques, identified one source of the pollution during storm events to be the combined sewer outflows and has thereby also shown where part of the solution to the river quality issues lie. This will enable our partners to effectively improve the river quality which will lead to the Valley becoming a thriving healthy green corridor for people and for wildlife which  all the community can enjoy”.

Richard Warneford, Wastewater Director at Northumbrian Water, said: “This study provides a helpful insight for us and we are pleased to be able to share data and work with partners, like the university, to improve the quality of the Ouseburn.

 “We share the local community’s passion for a healthy Ouseburn and are working hard with partners to achieve this.

“In the two years since the samples were taken that are reported in the study, we’ve been funding follow up activity and further investigations by the university. We’ve used this research to help us prioritise the investment work that we have planned for the area and to carry out operational work around misconnections and other contributing factors to the water quality in the Ouseburn.” 



The Ouseburn river in Jesmond Dene
The Ouseburn in Jesmond Dene. Photo: Chris Bishop

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