Heatwaves, sewage, pesticides: why England’s rivers need a ‘new deal’ to avert crisis

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Heatwaves, sewage, pesticides: why England’s rivers need a ‘new deal’ to avert crisis

A water industry group is calling for legislation and planning controls to protect waterways from climate change and pollution

The River Chess, a chalk stream, began to dry out at the beginning of the 1990s, often for years in a row

Sun 3 Oct 2021 05.00 EDT

England’s rivers are facing a crisis from climate change, agricultural pollution and lack of effective planning controls. That is the key warning of Water UK, the industry group that represents the nation’s water suppliers.

In a report to be published this week, the authority will call for the government to set up a national rivers plan and enact a rivers act to ensure the health of the country’s waterways. “We are calling for a new deal for rivers in England,” it states.

The report – 21st Century Rivers: Ten Actions for Change – says that despite billions of pounds being spent on improving water quality over the past 30 years, only 14% of England’s rivers are rated as being in a good condition, a figure that has remained unchanged since 2009.

Yet the government is aiming to get 75% of all rivers to this standard by 2027. If ministers want to achieve this goal, a radical transformation in dealing with rivers will have to be implemented, said Christine McGourty, chief executive of Water UK.

“Rivers have been in a state of crisis for much of the last hundred years, and though there’s been huge progress in the last few decades, there’s much more to do. So we’re asking government to bring forward legislation in a new rivers act that will provide greater protection for them in law.”

Rivers encapsulate the peacefulness and beauty of the English countryside – from the grandeur of the Thames to the tranquil graces of rivers such as the Wye and the Stour. However, modern life has taken its toll on these waterways. Since 1985, there has been a 70% increase in household water use in England as more and more homes have been fitted with showers, dishwashers and washing machines.

Otters' habitat has been affected by water abstraction.

As a result, water abstraction rates have soared across the country, leading to the drying out of rivers and streams. Global heating is triggering more and more heatwaves, which are worsening the crisis.

In addition, pesticide, nutrient and waste run-offs from farms are causing blooms of algae to spread down rivers while sewage discharges are still causing headaches.

An example of the problems facing England’s rivers is provided by the Chess at Chesham in Buckinghamshire. It is a chalk stream, one of the planet’s rarest habitats, with 85% of them occurring in England. Flag iris and water crowfoot thrive on their banks, while otters, kingfishers and water voles make their homes there.

Or at least they used to. Beginning in the 1990s, the Chess began to dry out, sometimes for several years in a row, as abstraction rates soared and heatwaves persisted.

For their part, water companies say they have invested more than GBP30bn on environmental improvements across the country and these have reduced serious pollution incidents and helped the recovery of habitats and species.

An example is provided by Affinity Water, which used to take about 6m litres of water a day from the River Chess around Chesham. However, it has recently halted this abstraction with the specific aim of restoring the Chess to its former glory.

Moves such as this are a step in the right direction, states the Water UK report. “However, the truth, though, is that this is not enough,” it adds.

A key problem is that water company activities are controlled by the Water Industry Act of 1991 but its provisions for dealing with environmental problems such as the discharge of sewage are outdated.

“They focus on protecting public health rather than the environment,” the report states. “A lack of legal efficiency standards mean we needlessly waste water by using appliances like dishwashers or washing machines while non-degradable ‘flushable’ wet wipes cause overflow triggering fatbergs.”

What is needed, it says, is a rivers act, which would involve introducing a series of measures for protecting England’s waterways. (The report is specifically targeted at England’s rivers because most UK environmental protection measures have been devolved.)

These measures would include:

Setting minimum standards to limit water use by washing machines and dishwashers.

Toughening regulations over the use of chemicals such as pesticides, which are often chosen without assessing their impact on marine life.

Halting bodies such as highway agencies from discharging untreated waste into rivers.

Making the manufacturers of wet wipes, sanitary products and other frequently flushed items pay for cleaning up blockages and pollution triggered by their products.

In addition, the report points out that 41% of UK wildlife is in decline, with 15% threatened with extinction. “The water environment is central to much of that biodiversity but most funding is heavily focused on water quality rather than habitat protection and restoration.”

To get round this problem, the report says, measures are needed to encourage water companies, landowners and local communities to work together to get round these problems.

“The risk is that billions of pounds of investment is otherwise narrowly targeted at removing nutrients from the ends of pipes, while causing other kinds of environmental harm and ignoring goals like habitat and species restoration.”

Water UK also urges getting the government, local authorities and industry to cooperate on establishing a bathing rivers network across the country. Last year a stretch of the River Wharfe in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, was designated England’s first inland bathing water. “It is an innovation that should be repeated across the nation,” states the report.

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