Water Industry News

River Pollution: Is It Getting Worse?

River health in the UK is a hot topic of conversation these days, with water quality a growing concern around the country, one that puts human health, the economy, livelihoods and water quantity at risk.


As population growth and urbanisation increase, coupled with the impacts of climate change, it will become even more important to ensure that water quality remains in focus… and one of the most immediate areas where significant improvements can be driven is, of course, pollution.


At the start of the year, the Angling Trust organised the largest citizen science water testing project ever to be held in the UK, with hundreds of anglers taking part in response to brown sewage blooms found in waterways, open water sources that are looked after painstakingly to benefit local fish populations.


It was found that 44 per cent of site averages for phosphate pollution failed the upper standard for good ecological status, while 83 per cent of the 163 rivers where regular samples were taken failed to meet these standards in at least one sample.


Catchment areas with the highest site averages for phosphate were the Medway, Severn Middle Worcestershire, Swale, Ure, Nidd and the Upper Ouse, Warwickshire Avon, Wey and tributaries, Loddon and tributaries, Hampshire Avon, Ribble and the Upper and Bedford Ouse.


At the time, head of campaigns with the trust Stuart Singleton White said: “Current environment laws to tackle river pollution are blunt tools that come with no guidance as to where phosphate reductions should be made to see the biggest improvements.


“Much stronger regulations are essential to ensure money is invested where it will make the most positive difference. Otherwise, polluters will play accountancy versus ecology to meet environmental targets, boasting about the level of investment but not delivering the environmental improvements needed.”


Pollution incidents


The greatest sources of water pollution are agricultural runoff and sewage and wastewater treatment. Where water firms in particular are concerned, despite reported crackdowns on sewage discharges into waterways and the possibilities of unlimited fines, these discharges continue to take place, many of which are entirely preventable.


Severn Trent Water, for example, has just been ordered to pay a fine of £2,072,000 for discharging raw sewage into the River Trent from its Strongford Wastewater Treatment Works between November 2019 and February 2020.


Over the course of the four months, approximately 470 million litres of raw sewage was discharged into the river. Of this, around 260 million litres was discharged illegally, contravening the conditions of the supplier’s environmental permit.


In a separate incident, Southern Water has also just been fined £330,000 after raw sewage escaped into a stream just outside Southampton, killing nearly 2,000 fish.


Environment Agency investigators believe that the illegal flow of contaminated matter continued to make its way into the stream and over public land for between five and 20 hours. As a result, pollution spread across almost 3km of waterway, with ammonia levels in the stream 25 times the legal limit.

This comes not too long after the company was fined a record amount of £90 million in 2021 for thousands of illegal sewage discharges into rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex between 2010 and 2015.


It was found that these offences were the result of deliberate failings, causing major harm to oyster beds, conservation sites and protected areas.


Similarly, this latest incident took place close to a site of special scientific interest, with local habitats and wetlands given formal conservation protection, suggesting that despite the record fine of 2021, Southern Water hasn’t learned its lessons particularly well.


As cynical as it might sound, the argument could well be made that water companies are weighing up the costs of making infrastructure investments versus the fines they have to pay out for pollution incidents, coming to the conclusion that it’s ultimately cheaper to pay the fines, rather than making the requisite upgrades to prevent such incidents from taking place.


Pollution penalties


In December 2023, the government scrapped the previous £250,000 cap on variable monetary penalties that was in place for those companies caught polluting the environment, replacing it instead with unlimited financial penalties from the Environment Agency.


The range of offences covered has also been expanded to include breach of permit conditions from sites discharging into seas and rivers, permit breaches from power stations and manufacturing industries, illegal waste offences and illegal discharges into water where there is no permit.


And in February of this year, it was also announced that inspections of water companies would more than quadruple in a bid to crack down on poor performance. Under the plans, inspections will increase to 4,000 a year by the end of March 2025, rising to 10,000 from April 2026.


An increase in unannounced inspections will also be seen, with the aim being to strengthen oversight of water suppliers and drive down the reliance on the self-monitoring system, which was established in 2009.


Furthermore – and in news that will likely appeal to consumers, who are facing bill hikes in the near future to pay for much-needed infrastructure upgrades – water bosses will also be banned from taking bonuses if the company in question has committed serious criminal breaches, such as causing significant pollution at bathing sites or conservation areas, or where serious management failings have been identified.


While these measures are welcome, for some they may still be insufficient. In July 2022, for example, the Environment Agency called for water company directors to be jailed for serious pollution cases, with performance declining to the worst levels seen in years.


Chair of the Environment Agency Emma Howard Boyd was quoted by the Guardian as saying at the time: “Fines currently handed down by the courts often amount to less than a chief executive’s salary. Investors should no longer see England’s water monopolies as a one-way bet.”


Environmental performance assessments for 2021 revealed that seven water companies recorded a rise in serious incidents compared to the previous year, with 62 such cases seen over the year, the highest since 2013.


Despite companies like Severn Trent Water, Northumbrian Water and United Utilities performing better and maintaining four-star ratings, the agency noted that no overall improvement had been registered for several years in compliance with conditions for treated wastewater discharges or total incident numbers.


Environmental consequences


The Angling Trust’s citizen science initiative focused on phosphate levels in rivers, overloads of which can cause excessive algae growth. This, in turn, can decrease the level of oxygen dissolved in river water, starving aquatic ecosystems and leading to toxic algae blooms, which are harmful to both animals and humans alike.


Rising temperatures driven by climate change also help to drive the development of these blooms, turning drinking water supplies toxic and putting the nation’s health at risk.


But it’s not just harmful algal blooms that we need to be mindful of and now it seems that sewage fungus outbreaks are fast becoming problematic for many of the rivers, ponds and lakes to be found around the UK.


In an article for The Conversation, Dania Albini – postdoctoral research fellow in aquatic ecology at the University of Exeter – explained that sewage pollution and the sewage fungus contained therein are putting drinking water, ecosystems, biodiversity and human health and wellbeing at risk.


Frequent outbreaks of this kind of fungus are an indication of how badly the environment is polluted, with high levels of fungus indicating poor water quality. Although it’s not always visible to the naked eye, this kind of fungus is likely to be present in rivers that receive sewage discharge.


The fungus itself isn’t actually a fungus, however, but is made up instead of several types of bacteria, presenting as slimy fronds floating on the surface of the water.


It can reduce oxygen levels in water, choking aquatic life as a result, prevent fish eggs from hatching and even turn rivers into such uninhabitable environments that they are no longer able to support invertebrates.


Removing sewage fungus is beneficial, naturally, but it can take a long time for rivers to recover so, as ever, prevention is generally better than cure.


An Oxford University study, published in September 2023, found that sewage pollution – regardless of whether it was treated or untreated – was the main driver of increased sewage fungus, nutrients and algae in rivers around the UK.


As such, it seems that tightening up regulations for water suppliers will only become increasingly important as time goes on, finding real deterrents to prevent pollution incidents and ensuring that transgressions are dealt with swiftly and with real meaning for the good of both the natural world and the people who must exist alongside.


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