MPs call for bathing rivers across England as part of anti-pollution drive

By Sandra Laville
River Wharfe in Ilkley
The River Wharfe in Ilkley is the only river in the UK with an area officially designated for bathing, although its water quality is deemed ‘poor’. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images

Water companies in England should each designate a stretch of river as bathing water by 2025 to drive the cleanup of a chemical cocktail of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic pollution that is suffocating biodiversity and risking public health, MPs have said.

In a report published on Thursday, MPs on the environmental audit committee said they wanted more assertive regulation and enforcement from Ofwat and the Environment Agency to restore rivers to good ecological health, protect biodiversity and adapt to a changing climate. They also called for Ofwat to act to limit bonuses paid to water company bosses who continue to oversee the dumping of raw sewage into England’s rivers.

The MPs condemned Liv Garfield, the chief executive of Severn Trent Water, as “disingenuous” for suggesting in evidence that discharges of raw sewage from storm overflows into rivers were “pretty much already rainwater”.

“As water companies do not routinely test the quality of the discharges from storm overflows, they are in no position to make this claim. Discharges from overflows can be highly contaminated with raw sewage and other pollutants,” the report found.

The cocktail of pollutants choking English rivers comes from three main sources:

• Agricultural pollution: the use of fertilisers and pesticides and the intensive farming of livestock and poultry can all contribute to poor water quality, as rainfall runoff from farm land carries chemicals and faecal matter into streams and rivers

• Sewage and wastewater: discharges from combined sewer overflows, which should only be used after exceptional rainfall, are now routine. They combine with urban runoff as a huge chemical cocktail: faecal microbes, hydrocarbons, industrial chemicals, plastics, pharmaceuticals and personal care products

• Runoff from towns, cities and transport, referred to as urban diffuse pollution. In built up areas, pollutants accumulate on hard surfaces such as roads and car parks which can then be washed into the sewer network during rainfall. It enters surface water drainage systems the pollutants are then discharged directly into rivers, streams or estuaries untreated where they can cause acute or chronic problems

“To claim otherwise shows a disregard for the public’s concern about water quality in rivers.”

“Rivers in England are in a mess,” the MPs said. “A chemical cocktail of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic is polluting the waters of many of the country’s rivers.

“Water companies appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers on a regular basis, often breaching the terms of permits that on paper only allow them to do this in exceptional circumstances.”

The impact on the ecological health of rivers has been dire; only 14% of English rivers meet good ecological standards and no river is deemed to be of good chemical status. In 39 of 42 main salmon rivers in England, the populations are categorised as being at risk or probably at risk, the report said.

MPs said the government should actively encourage the designation of at least one widely used stretch of river for bathing within each water company area by 2025 at the latest – something that places a legal obligation on water companies to improve water quality and has triggered huge improvements in coastal water quality. Only one river in the UK – the River Wharfe in Ilkley – currently has an area designated as bathing water.

The report said sewage discharges were only one part of the pollution spilling into rivers. Agricultural runoff containing fertiliser and farm slurry was a major pollutant, as was runoff from towns, cities and transport. Poor water quality in the River Wye has been linked to agricultural pollution from poultry farming, which has increased unchecked since 2000, with an estimated 20m farmed birds currently on premises in the Wye catchment.

The MPs condemned outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring of river water quality, with budget cuts to the Environment Agency hampering the ability to monitor water quality in rivers and detect permit breaches or pollution incidents from the water industry and farming. The Guardian revealed this week that the agency had instructed staff to “shut down” and ignore reports of low-impact pollution events because it did not have enough money to investigate them.

They called for an urgent review of the way in which water companies are allowed to self-report pollution, as MPs said they were alarmed at the extent of sewage discharge, large spills by water companies, and misreporting.

Citizen monitoring of water companies’ data showed that the true number of sewer overflow discharges may be much higher than those reported to the Environment Agency. The MPs’ report said water companies must be more transparent at releasing easily accessible information on sewage discharges as close to the time they happen as possible.

Many of the pollutants discharged into rivers were simply not monitored, MPs said.

Plastic pollution was now “ubiquitous” in English rivers and freshwaters, with single use and “unflushable” plastic products left to pollute riverbanks and create wet-wipe “reefs”.

In some sections of the River Irwell in the north-west, there were 500,000 fragments of plastic for every 1 sq metre of riverbed – “many, many more times [that of] the number of insects”, the report said. However, there was no monitoring by regulators of plastics, or other substances including metals, pesticides, pharmaceuticals and industrial chemicals.

Philip Dunne, the Conservative chair of the environmental audit committee, said: “Rivers are the arteries of nature and must be protected. Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality. For too long, the government, regulators and the water industry have allowed a Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure.

“Today, we are calling for these relevant bodies to come together and develop a system fit for the future.”

A spokesperson for Severn Trent said: “Storm overflows are designed to redirect flow, which is predominantly rainwater, from highway drains, roofs or driveways, to nearby watercourses to protect communities and homes from flooding. Based on the formula in current common usage by the Environment Agency and the flow assessments we carry out on our network, we believe an average of around 90% of the discharge from Severn Trent overflows is rainwater.”


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