Rivercide – not just a documentary title

Tonight, the world’s first live investigative documentary will be broadcast from the banks of the river Wye, attempting to find out “who is polluting our rivers, and why we’re not stopping them”. Sadly, river pollution is not just a problem on the Wye, but across the UK’s watercourses.

As with all rivers, the Wye is at the mercy of whatever happens within its catchment. Rain that falls on the hillsides, fields and towns of the English and Welsh borders ultimately finds its way into the river channel, and ultimately out to sea, but as it does so, it can bring pollutants from across the landscape, placing the river’s, and the the sea's, wildlife at risk.  

Official figures last year revealed that not one river or lake in England is in good health1

Unfortunately for the Wye, Powys is Europe’s largest producer of free-range eggs, home to numerous ‘Intensive Poultry Units’ housing an estimated 10 million chickens. Waste - chicken poo - is spread on the surrounding farmland as a valuable fertilizer. But where applied in excess, the nutrients simply wash away into the river.

This massive pollutant load has a devastating impact on the river. Phosphate triggers the growth of algae, smothering aquatic plants and using up oxygen in the water so that insects and fish effectively suffocate. Conservationists have described the river as looking “like pea soup”. 

This is a shocking example of river pollution, but as Rivercide will describe, it is by no means the only one - and Wildlife Trusts across the country are taking action.   

How Wildlife Trusts are working to tackle river pollution 

In some cases, Wildlife Trusts are working out in the river catchments, for example Shropshire Wildlife Trust have partnered with Severn Trent Water to tackle pollution coming from farmland.

This, and other partnerships between Wildlife Trusts and water companies, work well because of a common interest – reducing this pollution will benefit freshwater wildlife, and protect drinking water sources. The Trust are providing landowners with advice and practical support to help them reduce the loss of soil, nutrients and agrochemicals from their fields, from simple steps like planning the timing of fertilizer applications so that they are not washed away by rains, to practical changes like moving field gateways to break the flow ‘pathways’ that currently channel runoff into watercourses.  

In other cases, Wildlife Trusts play the key role of holding others to account.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust are currently dealing with high levels of pollution in their Lower Test Nature Reserve, where fuel oil from a nearby industrial estate has been released into the River Test, an iconic chalk river. The Trust believe that heavy rains caused an oil interceptor to flood diesel into the river, creating long-lasting damage to protected habitat. The Trust have pushed Southern Water and the Environment Agency to act, and work is now underway to contain the pollution, with the organisations discussing long-term fixes to the problem.  

Pollution events like these are not only harmful to wildlife. They can prevent our use and enjoyment of the water environment too, as swimmers, paddlers, anglers and others are well aware. And they can cost us dear – through our water bills, when companies need to remove harmful chemicals from water to make it safe for us to drink.  

What next for our rivers? 

People rightly want to see an end to pollution of our rivers, lakes, wetlands and coasts.  And to achieve that, we will need: 

  • Policy backing and resources for regulators.
  • All sectors to achieve the basics, then go beyond.
  • Strategic and collaborative approaches, at a catchment scale. 

But what does that mean?

Policy backing and resources for regulators.

Regulators like the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales must have the policy backing and resources to properly monitor our waters, inspect polluting premises, and enforce against polluters that aren’t complying with the law. 

All sectors to achieve the basics, and then go beyond.

In agriculture this means providing advice and financial support to help farmers go beyond minimum legal standards and adopt best practice. In the water industry, this means water companies going further and faster in ending pollution from storm overflows and wastewater treatment works.

This includes using nature-based solutions, such as treatment wetlands which further clean up effluent before it’s discharged into watercourses, and ponds to catch water and stop it overwhelming the sewer system, where it can trigger the release of untreated sewage. As well as tackling pollution, these solutions benefit biodiversity.   

Strategic and collaborative approaches, at a catchment scale.

We need to look at a catchment scale at how to tackle the range of different pressures affecting our waters and coast. On top of pollution from industry and agriculture we need to take action on road runoff, over-abstraction, invasive species, and past modifications that have altered the form and function of our rivers in damaging ways. Identifying where these problems align, and where solutions can deal with more than one of these pressures, means that our efforts can deliver more to protect our ailing water environment. 

Look upstream for solutions in tackling pollutants in our coastal waters too.

We are all too aware of the nature and climate crises the world is facing, but some of our coastal habitats, like seagrass beds, can sequester carbon out of the atmosphere if healthy – yet all too often these habitats are impacted by silent and unseen pollutants, washing downstream.

 

If we are to deliver the recovery of nature that is so often talked about by the government, these are changes we need to see. And sooner, rather than later. 

 

Not one river in England is in good health