The state of waterways in the UK are at an all-time low. No river, lake, or stream in England is in an overall good condition and freshwater habitats are in rapid decline. Every single river in England is now polluted beyond legal limits, including by nitrates and phosphates from human, agricultural and industrial waste, and only 70% of our bathing waters meet excellent standard, suggesting 30% need improvement. The UK is now ranked bottom of the pile for water quality compared to 30 of our European neighbours. Yet the importance of blue spaces for both our physical and mental health has never been more apparent than in the last 18 months, since the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
In order to halt the decline in our freshwater environments, for nature to rebound and to see the return of clean water in which we feel safe to swim and play, radical and immediate action is needed.
Firstly we must create an effective regulatory regime that has the resources to monitor water quality, inspect on a regular basis potential polluters and - most importantly - actively enforce regulations and prosecute offenders so that pollution will be meaningfully disincentivised.
In contrast, our environmental protection agencies have been decimated. Funding for England’s Environment Agency has been slashed by 75% over the last decade, with similar cuts affecting equivalent bodies in the devolved nations; - cuts that the public clearly want to see reversed. Over 51,000 people have now signed River Action's petition to double environmental protection budgets to increase the enforcement powers of regulators. While this increased public focus on insufficient enforcement has led to a recent commitment to hire 50 new farm inspectors in England, which (aided by new technology such as drones) could reduce the average frequency on which a farm might get inspected down from every 263 years to 15 years, this still is not nearly enough. With agricultural pollution accounting for around half of water pollution, major investments are needed in water quality monitoring and enforcement if we are going to stand any chance of holding polluters to account.
An effective enforcement regime will result in huge decreases in pollution incidents with significant benefits to the flora and fora of rivers and the quality of downstream waterways and bathing waters. The cost of this should also ultimately be self-financing. The fines levied through an effective enforcement programme have the potential to significantly benefit waterways, with investment in nature-based solutions being a key tool in reversing the huge decline we are experiencing in freshwater habitats.
We must set new ambitions for clean water that drive catchment-wide action to improve water quality. Situations like that we are currently witnessing in the Wye Valley just cannot be tolerated. Here, phosphate run-off from the huge concentration of intensive poultry farms is literally killing off one of the UK’s most iconic rivers. Sustainable soil management and adoption of farming practices focused on water quality will see a meaningful reduction in nutrient-rich runoff that causes the horrendous eutrophication and algal blooms in rivers and at the coast. The public demand for clean water is at an all-time high and the importance of clean water for our health and wellbeing has never been so prevalent. The uptake of water-based sports has boomed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports such as kayaking have seen increases of up to 30% and paddle boarding is a mainstay sport both inland and at the coast. With water users found to be three time more likely to have antibiotic resistant bacteria in their gut, the right to clean water is a fundamental health right.
Finally, we must end sewage and wastewater pollution. We are now experiencing a ‘second wave’ of sewage pollution, less obvious than the very visible impacts we saw on our coastlines in the 1990’s, but no less shocking. Raw sewage was discharged into waterways inland and on the coast over 400,000 times in 2020. The impact on both human and environmental health are considerable. The #EndSewagePollution campaign has shown just how important this issue is to the public with almost 50,000 signatures to the petition calling for an end to sewage pollution and 4,000 emails sent to MPs through the Safer Seas & River Service highlighting pollution events in their constituencies in 2020.
A holistic approach to wastewater management that covers all sources of pollution needs to be adopted at pace. Water companies must phase out the release of raw sewage from CSOs and government must set ambitious targets that hold industry to account. Nature-based solutions adopted as standard practice will reduce pressure on sewage systems, provide an avenue for nature recovery, and create natural environment for recreation and leisure.
The fate of our freshwater environment depends on ACTING NOW to drive down pollution, before irreversible damage is done.
Amy Slack is Head of Campaigns and Policy at Surfers Against Sewage. Charles Watson is Chairman and Founder of River Action UK.
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.
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