Suffocating rivers exposed

Barry White

A ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic is polluting the waters of many of the country’s rivers according to a report published on 13 January by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, see: . It points out that 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.

The committee wants more assertive regulation and enforcement from Ofwat, the Water Services Regulation Authority and the Environment Agency, to restore rivers to good ecological health, protect biodiversity and adapt to a changing climate. They also called for Ofwat to act to limit bonuses paid to water company bosses who continue to oversee the dumping of raw sewage into England’s rivers.

MPs said the government should actively encourage the designation of at least one widely used stretch of river for bathing within each water company area by 2025 at the latest – something that places a legal obligation on water companies to improve water quality and has triggered huge improvements in coastal water quality. The River Wharfe in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, is the only UK river currently designated as bathing water.

The report said sewage discharges were only one part of the pollution spilling into rivers. Agricultural runoff containing fertiliser and farm slurry was a major pollutant, as was runoff from towns, cities and transport.

The MPs condemned outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring of river water quality, with budget cuts to the Environment Agency hampering the ability to monitor water quality in rivers and detect permit breaches or pollution incidents from the water industry and farming.

Plastic pollution was now “ubiquitous” in English rivers and freshwaters, with single use and “unflushable” plastic products left to pollute riverbanks and create wet-wipe “reefs”.

In some sections of the River Irwell in Lancashire and Greater Manchester, there were 500,000 fragments of plastic for every 1 square metre of riverbed – “many, many more times [that of] the number of insects”, the report said. However, there was no monitoring by regulators of plastics, or other substances including metals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals.

Commenting on the report Prof Hannah Cloke, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Reading said:  “We need to get real. This problem has arisen because of chronic, long-term under investment in sewers, water quality monitoring, and regulation. It will take billions of pounds over decades to fix, which society has to pay for. This is everyone’s responsibility to solve.

“We can’t just keep dumping the costs on nature, because it can only take so much punishment before it breaks, with dead rivers and water that kills. I don’t want to live in that country.”

The Government has two months to respond to the committee’s recommendations.

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