Hot Topic: River Pollution In The UK
Water quality in the UK is fast becoming one of the biggest issues that the country has to face, with pollution from a range of different sources increasingly taking its toll on the natural environment.
Sewage, agricultural runoff and pollution from industry and urban centres are all putting pressure on rivers around the country, with more frequent extreme weather events such as intense rainfall and drought exacerbating the situation.
With climate change making such events more commonplace, there has never been a more urgent time than right now to address the issues at hand, improving the nation’s waterways and building resilience into the water system to protect resources for the future.
Sewage, in particular, has been hitting the headlines of late, with discharges taking place across the UK regularly, affecting chalk streams, rivers and lakes alike.
The UK’s sewer network operates as a combined system, which means that sewage water and surface water both flow through the same pipe network before arriving at a treatment plant.
However, water companies are permitted to use sewage overflows to discharge untreated sewage and wastewater into the environment when the system is at risk of being overloaded, such as during periods of heavy rain (which, as previously mentioned, are becoming more frequent as a result of climate change).
The combined sewer overflow system is intended to serve as an emergency relief valve and, legally, water suppliers are only allowed to use it during exceptional circumstances… but, over time, it’s become apparent that hundreds of thousands of discharges happen every year, with many even taking place during times when there is little to no rain at all.
Last year, Surfers Against Sewage’s annual water quality report revealed that water companies may be releasing sewage in dry weather as well, with 95 out of 146 so-called dry spills taking place in regions where bathing water quality is classified as ‘excellent’.
Legislative changes have been introduced over the last year or so in a bid to curb the practice, but it seems as though the deterrents just don’t go far enough, with suppliers continuing to discharge untreated sewage regardless.
In October 2022, the civil penalties for water companies polluting the environment increased from £250,000 to up to £250 million, as part of government plans to invest more heavily in infrastructure to minimise pollution incidents.
And just last week (July 12th), Defra announced that environmental polluters would now face unlimited fines under new legislation, with the £250 million cap lifted following a government consultation.
The move will give regulators a quicker method of enforcement, rather than having to go through lengthy and expensive criminal prosecutions.
However, it may be that imposing fines isn’t necessarily the best way to go about preventing pollution incidents, since it seems that water companies appear to be content to absorb these losses, continuing to make illegal discharges and causing other types of pollution through a lack of investment in appropriate infrastructure.
Southern Water, for example, was fined a record £90 million in 2021 for thousands of illegal sewage discharges in rivers and coastal waters around Kent, Hampshire and Sussex between 2010 and 2015. These offences were found to be the result of deliberate failings, causing significant damage to oyster beds, protected areas and conservation sites.
Despite this record fine, however, the Environment Agency’s latest environmental performance report has revealed that Southern Water continues to perform significantly below target and, in fact, along with South West Water is the worst-performing out of all nine suppliers in England.
The report also found that while the number of serious pollution incidents was successfully reduced to 44, total pollution incidents rose to 2,026 – the highest it’s been since 2019. Most of these incidents were from sewerage assets, although a rise in those from water supply assets was also seen.
Alan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency, commented on the findings, saying: “By the end of 2023, water companies will be required to monitor 100 per cent of storm overflows, which will allow us to regulate using better evidence and enable us to determine whether 2022’s improvements were the start of a trend.
“We know performance in recent years has seen trust in the water industry deteriorate. If it is to be rebuilt, we need to see profound, long-term change across the sector.”
Of course, it’s not just sewage and storm overflows that are putting pressure on rivers, lakes and streams around the UK.
Agricultural pollution is also responsible for our poor water quality, with an Environment Agency report published in 2020 revealing that agricultural runoff is the biggest single polluter of our rivers, accounting for 40 per cent of the total damage.
An investigation by the Guardian and Point Source found last year that the number of documented violations of agricultural water pollution legislation had reached record levels, with rules going largely unenforced.
Farming rules for water were introduced over five years ago and the number of documented breaches has been on the rise, but despite this the Environment Agency hasn’t issued any fines or prosecuted anyone under the new legislation.
Under the legislation, the Agency can issue fixed penalties of between £100 and £300, as well as being able to hand out variable money penalties, the caps on which have just been lifted.
However, according to the Guardian, there is a loophole in pollution legislation that allows for the pollution of rivers through the spreading of excess manure – and farmers going against the letter of the law are, for the most part, not facing any consequences.
Excess animal waste can cause water pollution by running off the land when it rains and making its way into local rivers, causing nutrient enrichment (which can lead to damaging algal blooms) and even potential ecosystem collapse.
The status of the River Wye, for example, has now been downgraded because of a decline in key species, in part due to large quantities of manure being washed into the river from local farmland.
As it stands right now, the loophole means that farmers won’t be informed if they’re non-compliant with the farming rules for water as long as they’ve acted in accordance with the statutory guidance.
This means that manure can be spread in contradiction with the rules, as long as the farmer has taken reasonable precautions to reduce pollution, or in situations where it would not be reasonably practicable to reduce manure use.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that a lack of understanding on the part of farmers regarding existing regulation is also associated with low compliance with policy interventions.
To help address the situation, the government is considering moving beyond previous fragmentary policies to adopt a systems approach that will deliver environmental improvements and mitigate the pressures that freshwater ecosystems around the country are now faced with.
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