Not a single UK River achieves good chemical score - Environmental Audit Committee
In one of their first actions of 2022, the Environmental Audit Committee has released what can only be described as a damning report about the state of water quality in UK rivers.The initial role of the enquiry was to focus both on the water industry and urban diffuse pollution, as previous enquiries had already focussed on nitrates. The report is extensive and covers a wide scope of different pollution issues facing the UK's rivers. It draws attention to the fact that the current monitoring is outdated, underfunded and inadequate.
Key Findings from the report
- Not a single UK river achieved a good chemical score, with the comments being that a 'chemical cocktail' of sewage, plastic and agricultural waste is polluting rivers throughout the UK; indeed, it is reminiscent of 2020 where not one English river managed to achieve a 'good' chemical status.
- Wet wipe reefs and fatbergs are no longer seen as an issue just for sewers as the chemical coatings of wet wipes and other contributors prove harmful to aquatic life and broader river ecosystems.
- A concerning impact of the current chemical status is that rivers are becoming breeding grounds for antimicrobial resistance.
- Concerns for salmon are also widespread with wild Salmon featuring in both 'at risk' and 'probably at risk' categories in every river they traverse. The salmon industry was worth over 600 million GBP to the UK in exports in 2020 alone; if the rivers fail ecologically and salmon cannot successfully spawn, the entire industry will be under severe threat of collapse.
- Nutrient budgets should be defined for each catchment to target the immense pressure both livestock and poultry farming put on water sources, especially with regards to Phosphorus levels. Budgets would help target existing polluters and prevent later potential sources from adding to the problem.
- National Highways should further accelerate their efforts to eliminate the toxic chemical and plastic pollution from the most polluting outfalls on their 2030 Strategic Roads Network, in parallel with the government's aims to reduce species decline.
- The cumulative effect of the many different sources of pollution and their impacts is that rivers and their ecosystems are becoming less resilient which reduces their capacity to recover and adjust around further pollution events and other damages particularly their ability to cope with climate change.
The report is emphatic that the way we currently monitor and manage rivers must be overhauled in order to restore rivers to a good level of ecological health, protect biodiversity and allow them to adapt to a changing climate. To achieve this, the focus falls on:
- Focus on investment in sewerage and water treatment infrastructure to ensure that damaging discharges are eliminated in all but the most extreme of circumstances. Spills should become the exception, not the norm.
- Water companies need to focus on cleaning up rivers in a similar manner to the focus on coastal bathing waters from the 1990s.
- Financial Penalties
- The current financial penalties for permit non-compliance, spills and mis-reporting are not at an 'effective' level, as such the water companies will currently just absorb the cost. Penalties need to be set at a threshold level that removes acceptance of these fines as routine option. Harsher financial penalties will raise the profile of the issue and begins the boardroom discussions on how to prevent incurring these fines in the first place.
- More assertive action from both Ofwat and the Environment Agency in terms of both regulation and enforcement to restore the UK's rivers. Currently the water regulator Ofwat has a range of powers over water companies including some surrounding bonuses to water company executives. The report suggests Ofwat should examine these powers and seek to limit bonuses to executives whose companies persistently exceed their permits.
- The Environment Agency must increase the variables currently used to monitor water quality as the current set of variables to not provide a complete picture of river health and the impacts on both humans and aquatic ecosystems. For example, most monitors only measure turbidity, pH, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, ammonia and possibly chlorophyll. These parameters require manual interpretation and do not directly relate to any permits. The parameters that need to be measured are BOD/COD/TOC, e-coli and ammonia because these parameters have real meaning that needs no interpretation. As such, by using a Proteus the picture becomes black and white and if real-time readings go above a consented limit (for say BOD) then the response is swift and robust without having to go through months of investigations. This is very much like a speed camera siutation: the only prosecutions come about because there is directly relatable evidence ie 35mph in a 30mph zone. Nobody will be prosecuted based on interpretation that the driver looked like he was doing >35mph! The inclusion of other components such as microplastics and emerging pollutants is essential, particularly when it comes to understanding the impact on aquatic ecology.
- Increase the number of designated bathing spots in rivers to encourage a faster clean-up process by the water companies.
- The government should adopt measures outlined in the recently introduced Plastics (Wet Wipes) Bill to prohibit the manufacture and sale of single use cleaning and hygiene products that contain plastic.