England’s rivers, lakes and streams ‘among worst in Europe’ amid concern over sewage and farm pollution

Climate crisis speeding deterioration of ‘already beleaguered’ waters, damning report warns

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Wednesday 15 September 2021 08:57 BST
<p>The River Wye has become a ‘murky, muck-riddled waterway’</p>

The River Wye has become a ‘murky, muck-riddled waterway’

England’s rivers, lakes and streams have some of the lowest water quality in Europe, and “drastic action” is now needed to restore them to enable wildlife to thrive, a damning new report has warned.

Every freshwater body in England currently fails chemical standards and only 16 per cent are classed as being “in good ecological health”, compared to 53 per cent on average across the EU, according to the Wildlife and Countryside Link, the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, made up of 61 organisations.

The report warns that the climate crisis is worsening conditions for England’s “already beleaguered waters”.

Increased water-use during droughts and damage caused by flooding, both of which are becoming more frequent due to the impacts of the changing climate, are compounding the existing problems of overuse, chemical pollution, sewage and plastic pollution, which are all already causing water courses and waterbodies to deteriorate, the authors said.

Ali Morse, water policy manager at The Wildlife Trusts, part of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “Nature and society are already paying the price for the overuse and pollution of our waters and wetlands – wildlife is struggling to survive, our rivers are not safe to swim and play in, and as customers we pay millions to clean up water so that it’s safe to drink. And that price is going to get even steeper as we feel the effects of climate change.

“We’re facing a hazardous future of water shortages, flood damage and the loss of iconic species like the water vole and Atlantic salmon in England. We should all be worried that none of our rivers, lakes or streams are in good health and we have among the worst water quality in Europe. It’s time for a new vision for English waters, with adequate investment, robust pollution prevention and sustainable water use.”

The report proposes three key challenges for the government. These are: to restore water and wildlife through large-scale habitat restoration, to clean up pollution through an effective monitoring and enforcement regime with ambitious targets, and also to “rethink our relationship with water”, to help make water usage more sustainable, and provide better health and wellbeing.

The research comes as new Environment Agency data reveals that water companies let raw sewage into English waters more than 400,000 times in 2020.

The failure of the water companies to deal with their sewage has prompted a complaint to the newly formed Office for Environmental Protection.

The complaint, from Salmon & Trout Conservation, alleges the secretary of state for the environment, George Eustice, and the financial regulator, Ofwat, both failed to enforce the law.

Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor for S&TC, said: “While the government busies itself tabling amendments of its own Environment Bill, and pretends to be making huge concessions on sewage pollution, the truth of the matter is that it and successive governments have simply failed to use the enforcement powers in the Water Industry Act 1991 to require water companies to treat sewage to a decent standard.

He added: “There has been an unhealthy conspiracy of silence between the government, Ofwat and the Environment Agency over many years, driven by the political desire to keep water bills down, come what may, but that has occurred at the expense of the environment.”

Concern over water quality around the UK has risen sharply in recent months.

A picturesque stretch of the river Wharfe in Ilkley, Yorkshire, known as a popular spot for swimmers, became Britain’s most polluted bathing site last month, just a year after being given the designation.

In the south east, the water company Southern Water was fined a record £90m last month for releasing billions of litres of raw sewage into waters off north Kent and on the Solent between Southampton and Chichester between 2010 and 2015, while this year it has released so much sewage into Chichester Harbour the area is now at risk of “environmental catastrophe”.

On the Welsh-English border, the River Wye, much of which flows through a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, has rapidly deteriorated, with local media describing the river, which until recently ran clear, as having become “a murky, muck-riddled waterway”.

According to the action group Save the Wye, there has been a sharp rise in chicken farming in Powys and Herefordshire near to the river, producing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of chicken waste.

Poultry litter contains high levels of phosphorus, which makes it an effective fertiliser. But when it is washed into waterways it causes algal blooms, starving the river of oxygen and killing aquatic life.

Local campaigner and wild swimmer Angela Jones, who recently swam in the Wye alongside a coffin to highlight the death occurring in the river, told The Independent: “Poultry farming is a huge problem with pollution and phosphates in the Wye with no monitoring. Big water companies are the main polluters as well as businesses and residential homes that all still pump straight into Wye.

“Our protected Wye is used as an open sewer and the agencies that are supposed to protect it are unfit for purpose. Our Wye is dying and we all know why!”

On Tuesday, the UK government rejected a petition calling for controls on pollution from agriculture in the Wye and Severn River catchments, suggesting the Welsh parliament was solely responsible for both rivers, despite most of the Severn flowing through England, and the Wye itself forming the border between the two countries for a significant stretch of the river. Following social media outcry, the petition was reinstated on Wednesday.

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