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Environment

Why England’s rivers are so polluted – and what you can do about it

England is home to some of the worst-polluted rivers in Europe thanks to a combination of sewage pollution, agricultural runoff and other contaminants.

Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron has introduced a new bill aiming to stem the tide of sewage pollution entering England’s rivers each year.

Speaking before parliament, Farron said that the public “have a right to know what our water companies are being allowed to do” to rivers in the country, calling for water bosses’ bonuses to be stopped until spills into rivers cease.

In 2021, data shows that sewage was dumped into rivers over 2.6 million hours, sparking outrage among campaigners and the wider public. 

The problem has been ongoing for some years, with England home to some of the worst-polluted rivers in Europe thanks to sewage pollution along with contamination by plastics and agricultural runoff.

In 2020, every single river in England failed a test for pollution, and just 14 per cent were rated as in ecologically “good” condition. 

This isn’t just bad news for wild swimmers but the broader public too, with experts recently warning that pollution in rivers is breeding drug-resistant diseases.

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So how did we end up in this position to start with? Who’s to blame? And most importantly of all, how can we fix the problem? 

Who is polluting England’s rivers? 

There is no one person or organisation solely responsible for the enormous amount of pollution in rivers across England, as waterways are being damaged by a range of different pollutants. 

However, when it comes to sewage, the finger is usually pointed at water companies, who have become infamous for dumping raw sewage into rivers at an alarming rate.

Sewage is pumped into rivers via pipes referred to as “storm overflows”, managed by different water companies across the country.

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As their name suggests, storm overflows are only intended for use following periods of extreme weather in order to prevent sewage backing up into people’s homes. 

Usually, a discharge requires a permit, but investigations by journalists and citizen scientists have revealed a high number of illegal discharges, many of which have resulted in fines for water companies. 

Yet sewage isn’t the only pollutant in our rivers, Agricultural runoff from farms is also damaging waterways across the country.

Runoff is a result of intensive livestock farming, which produces harmful chemicals in the form of animal waste and fertiliser.

When it rains, the runoff ends up in rivers, with microscopic particles often included in the mix.

“Urban runoff” from cars and roads is damaging rivers too, with pieces of plastic and chemicals being shed from vehicles and ending up in the water supply.

Recently, scientists discovered microplastics deep in human lungs for the very first time. 

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Just how polluted are rivers? 

It’s hard to determine the overall health of England’s rivers as some pollutants are poorly or inaccurately measured, while some aren’t measured at all.

However, event duration monitors fitted to overflow pipes can give us information about sewage pollution, with data showing how many times, and for how long sewage was discharged. 

The latest data from 2021 shows that spills occurred 372,533 times over the year, amounting to 2.6 million hours.

An investigation by the Guardian newspaper found that sewage was discharged into rivers 400,000 times in 2020 alone, sparking fury from campaigners.

Though it is not clear exactly how much pollution is in English rivers, indications of poor ecological health in all rivers suggests the level is dangerously high.

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Why is pollution still happening? 

Water companies say that outdated Victorian infrastructure and a growing population has created untenable pressure on the water system.

The infrastructure, they say, is unable to cope with the large volumes of material it has to process, with non-flushable waste products such as wet wipes making the problem even worse by blocking pipes.

Last year, water companies admitted that sewage pollution will likely continue for years to come due to the scale of investment needed. 

Campaigners have questioned claims that water companies lack the resources to update this infrastructure, however, with water bosses taking home large paychecks and significant sums paid out to shareholders in dividends.

Southern Water, Thames Water and Yorkshire Water all promised to stop paying dividends to shareholders following instruction from Ofwat to invest in infrastructure, but reneged on this promise soon afterwards. 

Authorities have similarly blamed a lack of investment in agriculture and the highways system for the continued problem of pollution via runoff. 

A new 10-minute rule bill introduced by Liberal Democrat MP Tim Farron has called for tougher measures to stem the problem of sewage pollution, calling for a ban on bonuses for water bosses until sewage dumping stops.

The bill asks for mandatory timescales and targets to end sewage discharges into rivers and coastal waters, with a requirement that quarterly reports be produced assessing the impact of spills on the environment.

Farron’s bill would also require a representative from an environmental group to sit on water company boards.

How can I find out how much pollution is in my river?

Though it’s more difficult to find out the level of general pollution in your river, you can find out how much sewage is in your local river. 

In an effort to aid transparency over sewage spills into rivers, the Rivers Trust has created a map using data from these event duration monitors which shows where and for how long sewage is being dumped into your river. 

You can type in your postcode or simply zoom into the map to see the location of spills near you. 

What can I do about river pollution?

If you are concerned about the level of pollution in your river, you can join a local river campaign group or sign up to your local Rivers Trust group to help monitor and improve water quality, as well as raising awareness of the issue.

The Rivers Trust has a handy list of numbers you can call wherever you are in the UK to report any pollution incidents you see.

You could also consider writing to your MP, local farming association or water company about the issue. The Surfers Against Sewage Safer Seas app allows you to report a pollution incident directly to your MP.

If none currently exists, you could also consider starting your own local campaign group. Many existing groups will be happy to share advice with you on the best way to approach such a venture.

Campaign groups have been successful in securing some wins on water quality in recent years.

In Ilkley, a local campaign group secured the UK’s first bathing status award for a river, meaning the Environment Agency will be obliged to test the water more regularly and award it a rating of “excellent”, “good”, “sufficient” or “poor”.

The campaigners hope the ratings system will raise public awareness of the poor quality of river water in the UK. 

Two popular swimming areas in the Isle of Wight and the River Thames in Oxford are also set to become bathing waters under new consultation plans.

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