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Troubled Waters: pollution threatens the health and status of UK freshwaters

September 21, 2021
The River Teifi in Wales, one of the case studies in the new Troubled Waters report. Nutrient pollution and sediment run-off in the Teifi catchment threatens its biodiversity. Image: Robert Haandrikman | Flickr Creative Commons

Poor water quality as a result of widespread pollution is threatening UK freshwater habitats and biodiversity, according to a newly published report. This is despite a significant proportion of the UK population stating that freshwater habitats are a ‘national treasure’ in need of improved protections.

The Troubled Waters report, released last week, was commissioned by a partnership of environmental charities including the RSPB, the Rivers Trust and the National Trust. It outlines how rivers, lakes, ponds, wetlands and streams across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are being significantly affected by agricultural waste, raw sewage, chemical pollution from mines, plastic and pharmaceutical waste.

The report states that the majority of water bodies across the UK fail to reach EU standards for good ecological status. In England and Wales, only 14% and 46% of rivers respectively are rated as having good ecological status, whilst only 31% of Northern Irish waterbodies are classified as good or high quality.

The good ecological status standards are set through the EU Water Framework Directive, which aims to focus environmental policy and management on improving the health and diversity of freshwater ecosystems. However, the new report states that despite concerted efforts many UK freshwaters remain in poor and declining ecological states.

“It is no surprise so many people think of our waterways as a national treasure and revel in the magical sight of otters playing in our streams, dragonflies hovering like jewels above our lakes and the vibrant flash of kingfishers in flight,” says Jenna Hegarty, RSPB Deputy Director of Policy.

“But  nature is in crisis and  the incredible freshwater wildlife people marvelled  at  as they explored our countryside this summer  is a fraction of what should be there,” Hegarty continues. “It is disturbing how it has become so normal for our waterways to be polluted and contaminated, and that  many people do not realise there is something wrong.”

Poor water quality in UK freshwaters has numerous negative effects for both wildlife and human communities. Through a series of case studies, the report highlights issues including biodiversity losses as a result of eutrophic algae blooms and pollution incidents, reductions in the structure and stability of freshwater food chains, and the dangers to human health, particularly in waters which are used for bathing and wild swimming.

“Freshwater biodiversity is declining at an accelerated rate when compared with marine and terrestrial organisms,” says Gail Davies-Walsh, CEO of Afonydd Cymru. “This decline in freshwater life is accompanied by  the  widespread  eutrophication of many of our rivers. 

“Eutrophication gives rise to algal blooms which  occur when too many nutrients enter the water column,” continues Davies-Walsh. “These blooms deplete the oxygen in the water to a degree that aquatic life are suffocated. Algal blooms are only one of the many pressures on our precious water resources that need addressing.  Immediate action is required to protect and enhance our blue spaces for current and future generations.” 

Birds in flight over Leighton Moss, a case study in the report where diffuse pollution is causing water quality issues. Image: Ian Livesey | Flickr Creative Commons

The report authors commissioned a YouGov survey to understand UK public perception of freshwater habitats and the issues they face. The majority of respondents (88%) agreed that UK freshwaters are a ‘national treasure’, and similarly (87%) that there is a need to better protect them.

“This report helps to quantify what those of us working closely with rivers have suspected for a while: the public’s appreciation of rivers as natural heritage has grown in recent years, especially as they have become an important refuge and recreational space during Covid, and our shared concern about the pressures rivers are facing is growing even faster,” says Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust. “This should send a  clear signal to government and businesses to start prioritising nature based solutions to improve the state of our rivers.”

The report concludes with six recommendations to help improve the health and status of UK freshwaters. First, it advocates for a systemic change to the UK planning approval system, in order to promote catchment-based approaches to freshwater management. Second, it highlights the need to shift towards ‘nature-friendly’ farming practices which generate significantly less pesticide and fertiliser pollution run-off.

Third, the report states that an improved set of long-term, legally-binding targets is needed for UK governments to drive improvements in freshwater quality and biodiversity. Fourth, it highlights the need for water companies to stop untreated sewage from reaching rivers, particularly through the use of combined sewer overflow systems.

Fifth, the report outlines that environmental agencies should be supported to carry out water quality monitoring and policy enforcement to better hold polluters to account. Finally, it highlights the need to better monitor protected sites across the UK to effectively implement environmental management schemes.

“Our rivers are facing a range of pressures, some of which are new and some of which have been causing pollution for decades, says Karen Whitfield, Joint Director of Wales Environment Link. “Impacts that local people might not have been aware of previously are now so bad that they are visible to communities, who can see and smell the pollution and have noticed the loss of wildlife.

“We need serious leadership from our regulators in tackling this pollution urgently, so that wildlife and local communities can benefit from clean rivers and lakes,” Whitfield states. 


Read the Troubled Waters report.

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