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Toxic chemicals persist in every stretch of English rivers

  • Toxic chemicals persist in every stretch of English rivers

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Campaigners issued a stark warning on Monday, asserting that English rivers are confronting a dire state due to escalating pollution, as revealed in a report by the Rivers Trust.

According to the report, not a single stretch of river in England was deemed to be in a good or high overall condition. A staggering 23 percent of these stretches were categorized as being in poor or bad condition in 2022, underscoring a trend of deterioration since the last assessment in 2019.

The latest health assessments show that still none of England’s river stretches are in good or high overall health:

  • 0% are in good overall status
  • 0% are in high overall status
  • 23% are classed as in poor or bad overall status
  • 85% of river stretches fall below good ecological standards; only 15% achieve good or above ecological health status 

The findings indicate a concerning lack of improvement over the years, with only 151 out of 3,553 river stretches showing any signs of enhancement while the number of stretches tested has declined.

Primary contributors to the declining water quality were identified as pollution from fertilizers or livestock and sewage discharge, according to the study.

Rivers Trust chief executive Mark Lloyd said the report's findings were "dispiritingly similar" to the first study it released for England in 2021 using the 2019 data. Data is published every three years.

"For all the announcements, initiatives, press releases, changes of ministers and everything, we haven't seen any shifting of the needle on the dial on a measure of health, which is showing our rivers are in a desperate condition," he said.

The issue of pollution from agricultural activities came into sharp focus as the charity River Action took legal action against the Environment Agency over the condition of the River Wye, a critical waterway in Britain. The charity alleged that the agency's lax oversight allowed excessive nutrient levels from chicken manure to seep into the river, causing detrimental effects on its ecosystem.

The over-application of chicken manure on farmlands surrounding the River Wye has led to an imbalance of phosphorus and nitrogen levels in the soil. When rainwater washes these nutrients into the river, it triggers algal blooms, rendering the water green and opaque, posing a threat to aquatic life.

Campaigners, alarmed by the deterioration of the River Wye, have taken matters into their own hands by conducting independent tests on river quality and scrutinizing planning applications along the England-Wales border, revealing a proliferation of poultry units along the river in recent years.

In addition to agricultural pollution, UK water companies have faced scrutiny for their role in discharging raw sewage into waterways.

Response from Environment Agency

The government has unveiled plans to significantly intensify inspections on water companies as part of a crackdown on underperforming entities, with inspections set to more than quadruple from current levels.

The Environment Agency (EA) said that it has already begun scaling up inspections on water company assets, having completed over 930 inspections in the current financial year. Moreover, the EA's inspections are set to reach 4,000 annually by the end of March 2025, and subsequently rising to 10,000 inspections from April 2026 onwards. This enhanced oversight will include more frequent unannounced inspections, aiming to strengthen regulatory scrutiny and reduce reliance on self-monitoring by water companies, a practice established back in 2009.

To support the increased inspection and enforcement efforts, approximately £55 million in funding will be allocated each year.

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