Toxic city runoff, oil slicks and fly spills: the state of England’s rivers
In July, Southern Water was fined a record £ 90million – following the largest criminal investigation in the Environment Agency’s 25-year history. The water company had pleaded guilty to 51 pollution offenses and dumping 16-21 billion liters of untreated sewage into coastal waters and waterways in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire between 2010 and 2015.
But the condition of British rivers, and in particular English rivers, has been a matter of concern for years. The River Wye, on the border of England and Wales, has seen increased algal blooms and decreased living standards for fish; its once light gravel bottom is now in many places covered with green mud.
Campaigners say the River Windrush in Oxfordshire is “literally dying” from pollution. On the River Wharfe, Yorkshire Water regularly dumps human waste upstream from a popular swimming spot. There are also fears that England’s chalk streams, one of the world’s rarest habitats, may be irreparably damaged.
How serious is the problem?
Very. Figures released last year by the Environment Agency (EA) revealed that only 14% of England’s rivers are classified as “ecologically healthy” under the EU’s Water Framework Directive (which was kept after Brexit). These figures were among the worst figures in Europe.
In Scotland, on the other hand, 65.7% of rivers were classified as healthy, and in Wales 64%. For the first time, none of the 4,600 UK rivers, lakes and streams assessed by the EA achieved ‘good chemical status’.
Why is this happening?
Toxic runoff from cities, oil spills and accidental spills all contribute to pollution. However, the two main sources are agriculture and water companies. Pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers used in agriculture, as well as animal manure, all run off the land and into waterways. These have direct toxic effects, as well as creating high levels of phosphates and nitrates in the water, leading to excessive algae growth – choking river channels and damaging the habitat of other plants, fish. and animals.
In the Wye River watershed, for example, it is believed that an increase in the number of intensive chicken farms has resulted in a damaging increase in the amount of phosphates in the river. More shocking, however, and arguably more easily preventable, is the dumping of sewage directly into rivers by water companies.
How much of a problem is sewage?
Water companies dumped raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England no less than 400,000 times last year, according to the EA. Untreated effluents – including human waste, condoms and wet wipes – flowed into rivers and seas for a total of 3.1 million hours through sewage overflow pipes.
In 2019, raw sewage was dumped for 1.5 million hours in rivers alone. The regularity of these discharges means that rivers risk “death by a thousand cuts,” said Mark Lloyd, managing director of The Rivers Trust.
On the Windrush, for example, activists say the water upstream of a sewer outlet is generally clear and healthy; downstream, it is cloudy and polluted with human waste, E. coli, household cleaning products, hormones and many other contaminants.
Why do these discharges occur?
“Combined sewage overflows” are intended to be discharged only during periods of heavy rains, to prevent sewage from flowing back into streets and homes. But England’s aging sewer system is struggling to cope.
Water companies face real challenges, as population growth and the increasing frequency of heavy rainfall put more pressure on their systems, and alternatives, such as installing additional stormwater tanks or building new ones. new sewers, are expensive; in London, the Tideway, a massive additional £ 4.1 billion sewer, is being built to catch overflows.
The UK water industry has already invested £ 30 billion in environmental work over 30 years. But environmentalists argue that is not enough; and that water companies save money by using sewer overflows regularly, not just in emergencies.
Why is the pollution not stopped?
Since 2010, EA’s law enforcement funding has been cut by almost two-thirds, from £ 120million to just £ 43million. In a letter obtained under freedom of information laws, EA President Emma Howard Boyd told Environment Secretary George Eustice that it “forced us to reduce or stop work it was funding previously, with real impacts (eg on our ability to protect water quality) for which we and the government now face increasing criticism ”.
At England’s 106,000 farms, the EA reduced inspections by two-thirds, from 905 in 2014-15 to 308 in 2019-20. At this rate, the average farm can expect to be inspected once every 344 years.
The rise of the wild swimmer
Outdoor swimming has been a popular British pastime for centuries. It was only recently that the term “wild swimming” was coined for this – in Roger Deakin’s 1999 book. Water stain, a recording of his chimerical quest to swim through the British Isles, via its rivers, lochs, tarns, moats, aqueducts, even the “chocolate water” of its city canals.
Thanks in part to books like Deakin’s and the closing of public swimming pools during the pandemic, it has become a craze: searches for the term ‘wild swimming’ increased 94% between 2019 and 2020.
Yet the UK’s polluted waterways can pose serious health risks from harmful bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria, and – in rare cases – life-threatening diseases such as leptospirosis. and hepatitis A.
Wild swimmers, however, can prove to be a powerful force for conservation. Last year a stretch of the River Wharfe near Ilkley in Yorkshire became the first in the UK to be granted ‘bathing status’, forcing Yorkshire Water and the EA to regularly monitor the quality of water. water and publish the results.
From Port Meadow on the Thames in Oxford to the Almond River in Lothian, the promotion of bathing water status is seen as a means of carrying out clean-up campaigns. The Wharfe received its first name in April: “poor quality”.
Will things get better?
The EA insists that in some ways they already have: England’s rivers are the cleanest since the Industrial Revolution, with pollutants such as ammonia, mercury and cadmium significantly reduced over the past decades. But EA chief executive James Bevan also admits that “not everything is improving and some things are getting worse”: including “water pollution incidents” caused by farms and treatment companies. Wastewater.
In theory, things should get better. The government is required by the Water Framework Directive to ensure that all waters achieve good ecological status by 2027; Last month it was announced that the number of EA inspectors targeting farmers who pollute rivers would be tripled.
But activists argue that the 2027 target is too far away, and that it will be missed anyway (it was first set for 2015, then 2021). Meanwhile, England’s rivers – home to a range of species such as trout, salmon and kingfishers, and beloved walkers, swimmers and fishermen – continue to suffer hard.