Rivers used as 'open sewers', says WWF charity

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Targets for 75% of rivers to be healthy by 2027 are "very unlikely" to be met in England, a charity has warned.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) says rivers are "used as open sewers".

The Environment Agency predicts 75% of rivers in England and along the Scottish and Welsh borders will meet EU expectations by 2027, compared with just 14% now.

It is planning an autumn consultation on "challenges and choices" faced in cleaning up water.

The agency said it would review the target based on "what can realistically be achieved".

Dr Andrew Singer, senior scientist at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: "There is no river in the UK that is safe to be swimming in.

"We have so many sewage works that are on a river that even if you treated it perfectly, you would still have enough pathogens coming out of a well-operated sewage works that you wouldn't want to swim in the river."

Melissa Compton was taken to hospital after "swallowing sewage" during a 220-mile swimming challenge in the River Severn.

The 39-year-old was taken ill in Gloucester in June, having already suffered hypothermia and fatigue while swimming to raise money for charity.

"It was grey, it was very murky, there was a lot of debris in the water and then you could see evidence on the side of what looked like toilet roll," said the nurse, who works in Shrewsbury.

"You could taste it and see the debris on the surface."

She believes the government should put more funding into cleaning up rivers and waterways.

"It's 2019, we should be able to clean up all of the waste that we produce."

The European Union (EU) asked nations to grade rivers between poor, moderate, good and high. Governments should aim for rivers to be "good" - meaning relatively unaffected by human activity. "High" refers to upland streams in sparsely-populated areas.

Under its Water Framework Directive the EU set a target for all rivers to be "good" by 2027 but exceptions were allowed if the cost of doing so would be too high.

The UK government has aimed for 75% of rivers to be in good health "as soon as is practicable", according to its 25-year environment plan.

As of the latest data available just 14% of rivers in England were in good health.

By 2021 the Environment Agency currently predicts 19% of rivers to be "good", rising to almost 75% by 2027. But the WWF said this was "very unlikely" to be achieved without tougher regulation and work to restore rivers to a more natural state.

Dave Tickner, chief freshwater adviser at WWF, said: "Our rivers are the lifeblood of the countryside - vital for wildlife and people, as well as our economy.

"As we prepare to leave the EU, the UK Government must fast-track flagship legislation to better protect and restore our waterways and invest in effective monitoring and enforcement to ensure water companies and agricultural industry can no longer use our rivers as open sewers."

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) stressed it would "not weaken any of our high environmental standards when we have left the EU" and would look to enhance them further.

The Environment Agency believes about 10,000 fish were killed by an agricultural waste spill in the River Mole in north Devon at the beginning of August.

Roach and trout were among the fish that died when a chemical-based pollutant got into the river.

While the agency said it took such incidents "very seriously" and was investigating, it has been accused of not doing enough to prevent such incidents from happening.

Feargal Sharkey, former lead singer of The Undertones, said: "Someone took their eye off the ball."

Mr Sharkey, who is a fly fisherman and chairman of Amwell Magna Fishery in Hertfordshire, campaigns for better management of rivers. He said it was "outrageous and abominable" that 86% of rivers in England were not in good health.

The Environment Agency said its teams "urgently investigated" the cause of pollution on the River Mole and "prevented further pollutant from entering the stream, as well as restoring oxygen levels to protect wildlife".

It tweeted to say it believed the the incident, reported on 2 August, to be "the largest ever fish kill in Devon and Cornwall". A few days later 3,000 trout and bullheads died as a result of pollution in the River Sheppey in Somerset.



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