Pollution in UK rivers

Only 14% of UK waterways are considered "healthy"...
29 September 2020

Interview with 

Janina Gray, Salmon and Trout Conservation


A small river running through a mossy, forested area


Rivers, streams, and lakes are an important part of the landscape, not just owing to their aesthetic value, but because they provide much of our drinking water. Alarmingly though, a new survey has delivered a damning verdict on the health of these water source, as Eva Higginbotham found out from Janina Gray, from Salmon and Trout Conservation…

Eva - It is a sunny and windy September day. And I'm down by the river Cam in Cambridge. There are a lot of very excited ducks. Some swans, even a baby swan. Well, a teenager really. And of course the river itself. Even with summer coming to an end here in the UK, there are still a lot of people on the riverbank. And in high summer, the riverside is a popular spot for picnics, punting and even swimming. But despite this idyllic scene, a recent report by the Environment Agency revealed that there is more going on below the surface, and it's not good news. Earlier, I spoke with Janina Gray from Salmon and Trout Conservation to understand what's going on.

Janina - The results which came out last week are the water classification results according to the water framework directive, which is a piece of European legislation, which looks at the health of all our water bodies. So our rivers, our lakes, our streams, and basically classifies them according to their ecological health and also the physiochemical health of the water body. And clearly the results last week were not very good. All of our water bodies were failing good status, and that's because all failed for chemicals, and only 14% were healthy according to their ecological attributes. And that's things like the fish, the plant communities within the rivers.

Eva - That just seems to be an incredibly poor score. Where do these chemicals come from?

Janina - So it's a wide range of places. Obviously agriculture is a major problem. So farmers will spray pesticides on their land to obviously kill bugs and they'll spray phosphates fertilisers basically to help the plants grow. And if this is washed off via rainfall into the rivers, that's when it starts causing big problems. So obviously pesticides, you know, they will kill invertebrates in the river, they will cause disruption to fish. And phosphates in the rivers basically can lead to excess algae growth, which basically sucks up all the oxygen from the water body and chokes out wildlife. There's also pharmaceuticals. So from things being flushed down the toilets and going into the sewage system, and then obviously ultimately ending up in rivers and, you know, run off from industries as well. Um, it's really across the board.

Eva - Do you know how they actually carried out the survey? Did they literally go to every single river, stream, lake around the whole of England to get these data?

Janina - It's not possible to survey everywhere. The Environment Agency has a monitoring network, which they then fill in the gaps by modeling and anybody who knows modeling will know that the models are only as good as the data that goes into those models. And unfortunately, like with a lot of things across the board from the Environment Agency monitoring has also been cut.

Eva - What do you think we need to do? What can we do about this?

Janina - So there's some really quick wins that we could do, or the government could do. Ultimately at the moment, a lot of the pressures facing our water bodies are coming from agricultural sources. The regulation is already there. We have something called farming rules for water. We've got slurry regulations, but the Environment Agency does not have the resources to basically enforce this legislation. And by just enforcing that legislation, it can make a dramatic difference. It could reduce the phosphates that are coming in from fertilisers. It could use the chemicals coming in from pesticides, could reduce the sediment reaching our rivers as well, which is bringing in a lot of other nasties with it.

Eva - And is this just a UK problem?

Janina - The European Environment Agency did do a report and they found that on average, it was about 40% of water bodies were reaching good ecological status across Europe. And the countries that were failing were the kind of heavily industrialised countries, or basically more populated countries. So countries like Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, and of course, England were fairing the worst.

Eva - And just to play devil's advocate, why does it matter if the rivers are unhealthy?

Janina - It affects all of us. I think that, you know, from coming out of COVID, we've all realised that actually green spaces, blue spaces, are really important to our wellbeing, our health. And obviously these chemicals, they will affect invertebrate communities, which are the base of the food web, they'll in turn affect fish and all the other associated wildlife that we love. And that we care about. Kingfishers, otters. So it's a wellbeing thing for all of us and obviously intrinsic value of nature that we need to protect them. But also the more chemicals, the more pollution that's going into water bodies, the more basically our water companies have to pick up the cost to remove them and ultimately, you know, that's us. So we're paying twice really. We're paying to clean up the act of industry, of farming. And also we're losing biodiversity. We're losing these really iconic species.


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