In much of the industrial Midlands and North, long stretches of bank are lined with used contraceptives, sanitary towels and other plastic debris flushed down lavatories, while the rivers are so polluted they can barely support fish.
The unsightly, unsanitary filth is is caused largely by Victorian storm sewage overflows, which divert raw sewage from the underground mains directly into streams and rivers. They should work only when it rains and the sewage is heavily diluted. But because the sewage network is overloaded, collapsing, or both, the overflows work regularly, sometimes daily.
In Bradford, signs on streams running through the parks and open spaces read 'Danger - Contaminated Water'. Brian Anderson, the council's environmental health manager, said that there were high levels of faecal bacteria 'almost everywhere' in streams in and around the city, with storm sewage overflows to blame. 'I can't foresee a time when we'll be able to take the signs down,' he said.
The problem can be solved by expensively re-engineering the sewer systems. At the time of water privatisation, in 1989, it was intended that by 2000 the worst of Britain's 8,000 'unsatisfactory' storm sewage overflows known to be causing serious pollution should have been dealt with. But, both the Government and the European Commission underestimated the cost of European water quality directives whose implementation will swallow more than pounds 1bn a year into the next century.
Faced with the deepening unpopularity of fast-rising water bills, the Department of the Environment has told the industry that implementing these directives must receive top priority.
The target date for improving rivers like the Aire, Mersey, Tame, Tyne and Weaver from the National Rivers Authority's 'poor' or 'bad' category to 'fair' - able to support coarse fishing - has been postponed indefinitely. Just before privatisation, Yorkshire Water committed itself to achieving at least 'fair' quality for its rivers by 2000, but Dr Tony Shuttleworth, director of water quality, said this weekend: 'It won't be achieved.'
The European Union directive receiving most of the blame for diverting money away from improvements to storm sewage overflows is the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive, which will cost some pounds 11bn to implement. This legislation is intended to clean rivers and coastal waters by specifying minimum sewage treatment standards for towns and cities. But both the NRA - the Government's water pollution watchdog - and the water industry say it will lead to overspending on coastal sewage works to the detriment of inland rivers.
Gerard Morris, NRA water quality chief in south Yorkshire, said that, under the directive, sewage pumped into the Humber estuary from Hull and Grimsby would have to undergo both primary and secondary treatment. The costs of building new treatment plants would run into tens of millions and the effluent would be as clean as that emerging from a modern sewage works on a river deep inland, rather than an estuary flushed out daily by tides.
He said that the money would be better spent on cleaning dirty rivers upstream of the Humber - the Don, Aire, Calder and Ouse. Dr Shuttleworth agrees.
The industry is already in the middle of a programme of coastal sewage improvements, costing more than pounds 1bn between 1990 and 1995, to comply with the EU's bathing waters directive.
The drinking water directive, on which more than pounds 1bn is being spent in the same period to meet quality standards which the industry doubts can be justified on health or safety grounds, is also under attack. The ultra-cautious maximum allowable concentration of pesticides under the directive is one part in ten billion, considerably lower than limits set for most pesticides by the World Health Organisation.
The bathing and drinking water directives are to be rewritten, but the process will take years and the most costly standards will remain in place. The Urban Wastewater directive remains in force but the Government is seeking a five-year delay in implementation to slow the rise in water bills.
The Water Services Association, which represents the industry, points out that it is spending about pounds 200m between 1990 and 1995 on inland storm sewage overflows. 'We think the state of some of these rivers is unsatisfactory, but we will get around to doing it all in the end,' a spokesman said.
Leading article, page 13
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