Getting a complete overview of the health of our rivers and the pollution affecting them is hampered by outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring regimes. It is clear, however, that rivers in England are in a mess. A ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic is polluting the waters of many of the country’s rivers. Water companies appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers on a regular basis, often breaching the terms of permits that on paper only allow them to do this in exceptional circumstances. Farm slurry and fertiliser run off is choking rivers with damaging algal blooms. Single use plastic sanitary products—often coated with chemicals that can harm aquatic life—are clogging up drains and sewage works and creating ‘wet wipe reefs’ in rivers. Revolting ‘fatbergs’ as big as blue whales are being removed from sewers, costing companies and their customers in the region of £100 million a year. Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination. Disturbing evidence suggests they are becoming breeding grounds for antimicrobial resistance.
Cleaning up our rivers is important for public health and vital to protect wildlife. The world is experiencing an extinction crisis and freshwater eco-systems are on the frontline. The build-up of excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from animal waste and sewage is reducing oxygen levels in rivers and in severe cases can cause fish kills. Along with the stresses of plastic and synthetic chemical pollution and climate change this is creating multiple pressures undermining the health and resilience of these key ecosystems. It should ring alarm bells that wild Salmon are classed as ‘at risk’ or ‘probably at risk’ in almost every river they traverse. Rivers where we know important species such as the North Atlantic Salmon are in danger must be protected from pollution as a priority.
The sewerage system is overloaded and unable to cope with the increasing pressures of housing development, the impact of heavier rainfall, and a profusion of plastic and other non-biodegradable waste clogging up the system. Successive governments, water companies and regulators have grown complacent and seem resigned to maintaining pre-Victorian practices of dumping sewage in rivers. There has been investment in the network since privatisation, but underlying problems have not been resolved and capital investment has not kept pace with housing and other development pressures on the drainage and treatment network. Biodiversity has not been priced adequately into economic decision making. The water regulator Ofwat has hitherto focused on security of water supply and on keeping bills down with insufficient emphasis on facilitating the investment necessary to ensure that the sewerage system in England is fit for the 21st century.
A step change in regulatory action, water company investment, and cross-catchment collaboration with farmers and drainage authorities is urgently required to restore rivers to good ecological health, protect biodiversity and adapt to a changing climate. Investment must be accelerated so that damaging discharges from water treatment assets including storm overflows cease and that any spills occur only in genuinely exceptional circumstances. Financial penalties for pollution incidents and misreporting must be set at a level that puts the issue on the agenda in water company board rooms. Ofwat should examine the powers it may have to limit the payment of bonuses to water company executives while companies persistently breach their permits.
Intensive livestock and poultry farming is putting enormous pressure on particular catchments, such as the one feeding the River Wye. As many as twenty million chickens are being reared there and their waste may be raising the river’s phosphorus levels. Planning permission seems to be granted for individual units without any cumulative assessment being made of the overall impact of all the intensive farms in the area. Each catchment should have a nutrient budget calculated. Pollution from all sources in the catchment must then be progressively reduced or mitigated until it does not exceed the capacity of the river to handle the nutrients. New poultry farms should not be granted planning permission in catchments exceeding their nutrient budgets.
National Highways must accelerate its efforts to eliminate toxic chemical and plastic pollution from the most polluting outfalls on the Strategic Roads Network by 2030 in line with the Government’s commitments to halt species decline. We expect to see far more assertive regulation and enforcement from Ofwat and the Environment Agency to restore our rivers to their natural glory.