By Charles Watson, Founder and Chairman, River Action.
As appeared in Weatherbys Hamilton bi-annual newsletter – The Specialist.
On January 5th the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee published its long-awaited report on Water Quality in Rivers. Over the previous twelve months this cross-party group of MPs had been taking evidence from a wide range of scientific, agricultural, corporate and environmental organisations, including my own campaigning group River Action.
The report’s findings were shocking. It’s 137 pages chronicle a devastating account of how in recent years our rivers have been allowed to sink into a scandalous state of environmental degradation. To quote from its executive summary:
” 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… Farm slurry and fertiliser run off is choking rivers with damaging algal blooms… Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health. “
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee report
How could this have happened?
I remember when much younger our watercourses were making a major ecological comeback. Great British rivers such as the Thames, Clyde and Tyne were showing huge progress in recovering from over a century of industrial abuse. For example, some might remember the momentous occasion in the 1980s when salmon were recorded finally returning to the Thames after an absence of 150 years.
However, in the last decade things have taken a horrendous turn for the worse. One of the direct consequences of the financial crisis of 2008 was the subsequent decade of austerity. The huge government debt incurred in saving our banking system was largely paid off by severe cuts to public services. Whether Health, Education or Defence, few government departments escaped the axe and one of the most significant casualties was Environmental Protection. Since 2011, the budget of England’s Environment Agency (EA) was cut by 75%, with similar cuts taking place in its equivalent statutory agencies in the devolved nations. As a direct consequence, environmental protection began to collapse. Essential services such as water quality monitoring were seriously scaled back. Meanwhile, the EA was also instructed by Government to re-direct much of its funding to the growing issue of flood defence. The biggest casualty of these cuts was enforcement. Prosecutions of polluters during this period collapsed by 95%, with the Agency simply not having the resources to take on major offenders in the courts.
So, polluters, be they under-invested water companies or cash-constrained farmers, had been able to save significant costs themselves by bypassing environmental regulations and discharging waste into rivers or onto the land, secure in the knowledge that they could do so with impunity.
The resulting statistics make dire reading. Data released on the 31st March this year showed that raw sewage was discharged into rivers and coastal areas for more than 2.7 million hours on more than 370,000 occasions throughout 2021, with many other discharges not being monitored. And only 14% of England’s rivers are officially considered now to be in “good” ecological health. Nowhere has the collapse of environmental protection been more harrowing than the story of the iconic River Wye. Britain’s fourth biggest watercourse is probably one of the most “protected” rivers in Europe. From its source in the Welsh mountains to its mouth in the Severn Estuary it flows through National Parks, Special Areas of Conservation, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Sites of Special Scientific Interest. But tragically over the last five years this magnificent river has spiralled downwards into an advanced state of ecological collapse.
Over the last three summers, the unthinkable happened. The Wye’s clear flowing water turned a noxious green following repeated and unprecedented algal blooms. Its pristine gravel beds, the spawning ground for England’s premier salmon river, became caked in thick algal slime. Meanwhile, the famous abundant ranunculus weed beds, which are so important to the river’s ecosystem, all but disappeared having been smothered from sunlight by this putrid opaque water.
The prime cause of this catastrophe can be found in the huge industrial sheds which have appeared across the river’s catchment over the last few years and which now house over 20 million intensively reared chickens.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This form of intensive agriculture is not farming. It is industrial manufacturing. Most of the chicken meat sold in fast food restaurants or from supermarket shelves is the output of a highly industrialised process which starts with the pumping of phosphate-rich animal feed into huge sheds containing up to 300,000 birds. Never seeing the light of day, they are fattened up for 3-4 months before slaughter, after which the manure they have produced is largely dumped onto surrounding agricultural land.
Chicken excrement contains four times the nutrient levels of that of humans, cows or pigs – and recent research by the University of Lancaster has concluded that the soils of the Wye Valley now contain three times average national phosphate levels. So, with the land unable to absorb this huge surplus of nutrients, they have nowhere to go when it rains other than down into the river, wreaking untold damage as they fuel the deadly algal blooms.
The fightback against the pollution crisis facing our rivers is however starting to build real momentum up and down the country. Volunteer citizen science groups have stepped in to fill the void left by our failing statutory agencies to conduct the essential evidence of monitoring of pollution levels. Meanwhile campaigners in every shape and form have mobilised. From local “friends” groups who have formed to protect a given river, to the repurposing of existing environmental organisations such as the Wildlife Trust Movement. Angling, rowing and kayaking clubs have become environmental campaigning bodies. As has the country’s booming wild swimming movement.
Into this dynamic community River Action was launched last February shortly after I had just stepped out of a 25-year career in the worlds of public relations, digital communications and advertising. Having just seen for myself the appalling state of the River Wye – unrecognisable from that pristine river I had fished in my 20s – I was resolved to repurpose skills originally learnt at the sharp end of the corporate sector into the world of environmental campaigning.
In our first year we have directly taken on the major agribusinesses whose toxic supply chains are a prime source of the problem. In February we published our “Plan to Save the Wye”. Strongly endorsed by dozens of other environmental NGOs, we are calling for urgent mitigations to be implemented, such as the export of the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the Wye Valley’s chicken manure to those parts of the country, such as East Anglia, that actually import huge quantities of synthetically manufactured phosphate-based fertilisers. With fertiliser prices having rocketed due to the Ukrainian situation, this is the ultimate no-brainer.
In the months ahead we plan to take on the fundamental task of persuading our lawmakers to re-fund and re-empower environmental protection. If you care about the fate of our rivers, get involved! Join a local environmental group or become a volunteer citizen scientist – or make a donation to a campaigning body like River Action to help us escalate the reach and depth of our campaigning to save our precious rivers. It would be an unforgivable tragedy if an iconic British river such as the Wye has to be sacrificed before the government finally sits up and does something about the greatest environmental scandal of our time.