UK rivers are being seriously polluted and this threatens both ecosystems and our livelihoods. The UK Government’s Environmental Audit Committee reported recently that England’s rivers are polluted by a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, microplastics and slurry. The audit report also indicated that every major river in England suffered from some level of pollution and none had a clean bill of health.
One special natural asset which is badly affected is our chalk streams. The UK has nearly 85% of the world’s natural chalk streams – an amazing endowment – yet, according to report findings, only 14% are in good health. Two thirds of the chalk streams are affected by agricultural run-off and over a half by water company discharges from sewage and water treatment works. According to the Journal of Cleaner Production, the wetter and stormier conditions are accelerating run-off from farms leading to siltation of chalk streams and other rivers, and higher nitrate levels.
The deeply unhealthy state of Britain’s rivers has a direct impact on biodiversity. This includes a reduction in fertility of fish, and increased mortality due to loss of oxygen in water with likely impacts too from microplastics ingested by birds and mammals too.
One of the biggest impediments to cleaning up our rivers is ongoing government budget cuts. Key organisations such as the Environment Agency (EA) have seen budgets slashed in the past decade by up to 65% since 2010. This greatly impacts the organisation’s ability to monitor, prosecute and rectify pollution incidents. The ENDS Report (18 September 2020) revealed that not one single river in England was considered “good” in terms of chemical condition during the previous year. Morecuts in 2022 will further undermine the EA’s ability to improve the quality of our rivers. The EA have recently recruited 50 inspectors to assess water quality, but the inspectors themselves have virtually no power to enforce fines for polluting companies and individuals. With such a small workforce it has been suggested that each farm will only be visited once every 50 years.
It is likely to take a surge in public concern for our rivers to persuade this or future governments to turn this situation around. Those of us who care about nature should be in the lead in raising our voices. Now, in the light of recent reports, is a good time to write to your MP asking to press the government to restore funding to organisations such as the EA. And you can do our practical bit to help too, by minding what we pour down the sink.
Written by Andy Lester, A Rocha UK’s Head of Conservation for our March 2022 eNews.
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