February 27, 2024

Eighty-three per cent of English rivers contain evidence of high pollution caused by sewage and agricultural waste, according to the largest citizen science water testing project ever to take place in the UK.

Hundreds of anglers took part in the study, organised by the Angling Trust, after being angered by the brown blooms of sewage in the waters they painstakingly tend for the benefit of fish.

Six hundred and forty-one anglers from 240 angling clubs now regularly monitor pollution in 190 rivers across 60 catchments. Between them, they have taken more than 3,800 samples, which are revealing the systemic pollution across England’s waterways. This is mainly caused by agricultural runoff and sewage spilled by water companies.

The fishers found that 83% of rivers monitored failed phosphate standards for good ecological status in at least one test, and 44% of site averages for phosphate failed the standard for good ecological status. Aquatic life would struggle to survive in such conditions: phosphates cause an excessive growth of algae, which can decrease the level of oxygen dissolved in river water, choking the creatures within.

The mapped catchments with the highest phosphate site averages are the Medway; Swale, Ure, Nidd and Upper Ouse; Severn Middle Worcestershire; Loddon and tributaries; Wey and tributaries; Warwickshire Avon; Ribble; Hampshire Avon; Upper and Bedford Ouse.

Jamie Cook, chief executive of the Angling Trust, said: “The first annual report proves that across the country rivers are suffering from too much phosphate which is extremely damaging in freshwaters. We need to see much more enforcement and an update of existing laws to tackle the scourge of river pollution and hold polluters to account.”

The Angling Trust will now release the results of the monitoring annually, though anglers say it should not fall on volunteers to track the state of England’s rivers. Cuts to the government’s Environment Agency have meant, they argue, that monitoring levels have fallen. They have also complained that information about pollution remains elusive from the water industry and the agricultural sector.

Ministers in England are also planning to diverge from the EU’s water framework directive, which sets pollution standards for European waterways. Under the plans, the WFD would no longer be assessed as part of England’s legally binding environmental targets, potentially further weakening the regulation around water quality.

The targets to reduce phosphate pollution in England are already weak. Under current plans water companies could meet environmental goals by simply stripping phosphate only on their largest sewage works serving large populations and at the bottom end of rivers. This would mean that targets could be achieved with the lowest level of investment. Anglers argue that their new data shows that phosphates will still be present in the majority of rivers upstream and those with smaller wastewater works.

Stuart Singleton-White, head of campaigns at the charity, said: “Current environment laws to tackle river pollution are blunt tools that come with no guidance as to where phosphate reductions should be made to see the biggest improvements. Much stronger regulations are essential to ensure money is invested where it will make the most positive difference. Otherwise, polluters will play accountancy versus ecology to meet environmental targets, boasting about the level of investment but not delivering the environmental improvements needed.

“The recently published report from the Office of Environmental Protection shows that stopping sewage pollution, as the government has said it would, is not progressing to plan and our report shows this to be the case. A failure by the next government, whoever wins the election, to address this failure would be a betrayal of anglers across the country.”

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We are taking comprehensive action to tackle water pollution in our rivers and seas – with more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement. This includes setting highly ambitious legally binding targets to reduce water pollution from agriculture and phosphorous pollution from treated wastewater.

“We are also taking swift action against those who break the rules, including increasing funding for [industry regulator] Ofwat, giving them new powers, and changing the law so that polluters face unlimited penalties and are rightfully held to account.”

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