Not a single river in England has good chemical status according to the latest report published by the Environment Agency last month. That shocking finding has understandably attracted great media attention, with the implication that pollution of rivers is getting worse. However, closer reading of the report puts the conclusions into perspective.
The European Union Water Framework Directive came into force in 2000 and set the target for all waters to be in good ecological condition by 2015. When it became apparent that the target could not be met, the deadline was extended to 2021 and then again to 2027. The target set by the British Government in its 25-year Environment Plan was for 75% of surface and ground waters to be in good ecological condition by 2027 but even the Environment Agency admits that is looks increasingly unlikely that the target can be met.
In fact the ecological status of rivers has remained unchanged since the last report in 2016. 14% then as now were rated as of good ecological status, increasing to 16% of all water bodies. But, in 2016, 97% of rivers were rated as of good chemical status reducing to zero in the latest report. This is not evidence of massive pollution but a reflection of testing methods. The threshold for failure has been raised for some chemicals whilst others have been brought within the testing regime for the first time. Nevertheless, the results are a damning indictment of our water courses and show that greater action is required if the targets are to be met.
Why is it proving so difficult to makes improvements? Over-abstraction is one issue, not a cause of pollution in itself but lower water flows result in less dilution of pollutants. 80% of water is recycled through sewage treatment works but water taken from the borehole at Axford near Marlborough to supply Swindon is returned to the Thames rather than the Kennet catchment.
Much of the pollution comes from agriculture and sewage treatment plants, according to the report, 36% of damage to the water environment is due to discharge from sewage works and 40% is due to run-off from ‘agricultural industries’. More needs to be done to reduce this, although it is interesting to note that both nitrate and phosphate levels have fallen since 2016.
Climate change makes the problem more acute with heavier rainfall events. Soil structure is poor on many farms with compaction causing a reduced ability to absorb rainfall, leading to run-off. In six days in September 2012, more than 200,000 tonnes of prime Herefordshire topsoil was washed into the river Lugg, the equivalent of 64 acres! Nutrient and pesticide residues were carried with the soil particles into the river.
In Hampshire, the growing of water cress threatens the Test and Itchen. The Environment Agency has taken action against Bakkavor, which runs a water cress plant in Alresford, for discharging neonicotinoid insecticide into the river Itchen. The plant is due to close at the end of the month after Waitrose, one of its biggest customers, stopped buying from the company. The other major producer in Hampshire is Vitacress on the Bourne, a tributary of the river Test, which says it is working very closely with the Environment Agency to ensure it is compliant with environmental permitting regulations.
Our chalk streams are an internationally important resource not least because 85% of the world’s chalk streams are in England. They are fed by springs from the aquifers in the chalk downland and are thus very pure, have a relatively constant temperature and water flow. They provide an ideal habitat for native brown trout, sea trout and salmon amongst many other species. The fact that we seem incapable of maintaining them in good ecological and chemical condition is a national disgrace.
Climate change is probably the single most critical reason why efforts to improve water quality are failing. Apart from the impact on agriculture mentioned above, heavy rainfall and floods overwhelm drains and the sewage system so that raw sewage washes into water courses. This happened on 200,000 occasions last year according to the Guardian newspaper.
New trunk roads such as the Newbury By-Pass may have balancing ponds built into the infrastructure but, on older trunk roads and country lanes, flood water runs into drains or the surrounding countryside. Those drains run into watercourses taking a wide range of polluting chemicals from the road surface. Of course, we should avoid flooded roads but taking the flood water directly into rivers and streams is one reason why they are so badly polluted.
The Kennet through Newbury has another problem where it joins the Kennet and Avon canal at Marsh Benham. Any pollution from the canal, including that caused by the narrow boats, thus comes straight into one of our finest chalk streams, recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.
England has one of the worst records in Europe. In Scotland, 65.7% of waterways are in good health, 64% in Wales and 31.3% in Northern Ireland. The average for EU member states is 40%, which makes England’s 16% look very poor indeed. The Environment Agency’s budget was cut during the austerity years but, if this Government is serious about its pledge to leave the environment in a better state than when it was elected, it needs to find adequate funding and resolve to enforce improvements.