A new report from the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) warns poor water quality in English rivers is a result of chronic underinvestment and multiple failures in monitoring, governance and enforcement.
Pollution from agriculture, sewage, roads and single-use plastics is contributing to a dangerous ‘chemical cocktail’ coursing through our waterways.
Not one of England’s rivers has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination; only 14% have ‘good ecological status’.
According to the EAC, current monitoring is outdated, underfunded and inadequate, which makes it difficult to get a complete overview of the health of England’s rivers.
Budget cuts have hampered the Environment Agency’s ability to monitor water quality in rivers and detect permit breaches or pollution incidents from the water industry and farming.
River quality monitoring does not routinely identify microplastics, persistent chemical pollutants or anti-microbial resistant pathogens flowing through rivers.
The Committee heard that, until the passing of the Environment Act last year, there had been a lack of political will to improve water quality, with successive governments, water companies and regulators seemingly turning a blind eye to antiquated practices of dumping sewage and other pollutants in rivers.
Risks to public health
Bacteria found in sewage and animal slurry can cause sickness, yet few river users are able to make informed decisions about when it is safe to use rivers downstream of storm overflows and wastewater treatment works.
The report recommends the Environment Agency should work with water companies to ensure easily accessible information on sewage discharges, in as near to real time as possible, is made publicly available.
The MPs are also calling on the government to actively encourage the designation of at least one widely used stretch of river for bathing in each water company area by 2025.
Freshwater ecosystems at risk
The build-up of high levels of nutrients – such as phosphorus and nitrogen from sewage and animal waste – is choking rivers with algal blooms that reduce oxygen levels, suffocating fish, plants and invertebrates.
Along with the stresses of plastic and synthetic chemical pollution and climate change, this is creating multiple pressures that are undermining the health and resilience of freshwater ecosystems.
As a result of pollution in our rivers, freshwater species such as salmon are at risk.
The impact of rural diffuse pollution is the most common form of pollution preventing rivers from achieving good ecological status.
Intensive livestock and poultry farming is putting enormous pressure on particular catchments, such as that flowing into the River Wye, as it may be raising the river’s phosphorus levels.
The Committee is calling for each catchment to have a nutrient budget calculated. Pollution must then be progressively reduced from all sources in the catchment 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.
The impact of wastewater from sewage treatment works and sewer overflows is preventing 36% of water bodies from achieving good ecological status.
The Committee was alarmed at the extent of sewage discharge and of misreporting and large spills by water companies.
Citizen science analysis of water company data suggest that the true number of sewer overflow discharges may be much higher than those reported by the water companies to the Environment Agency.
Water companies appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers regularly, often breaching the terms of permits that only allow this in exceptional circumstances.
An urgent review of water companies’ self-monitoring is needed, the report concludes.