Lancaster University: From ‘fatbergs’ and farm run-off to species loss and algal blooms – Lancaster researchers contribute to hard hitting report into the state of English Rivers

Lancaster University researchers have contributed key evidence to a hard-hitting report into the dire condition of English rivers.

Professor Nigel Watson, Professor of Geography and Environmental Management at Lancaster University, and Paul Withers, Professor of Catchment Biogeochemistry at Lancaster University, were among those submitting expert evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) inquiry on Water Quality in Rivers.

Professor Watson provided evidence of the failings of existing water management and governance systems to deal with the diverse and pressing challenges faced by our waterways. Meanwhile Professor Withers gave evidence based on the growing problems of agricultural run off into Rivers based on work coming out of the ‘RePhoKUs’ research project —a collaboration between the Universities of Lancaster and Leeds, using the River Wye as one of its study catchments.

Billed as ‘ a complete overview of the health of our rivers and the pollution affecting them’ the report concluded that despite the difficulty in obtaining up-to-date evidence, caused by ‘outdated, underfunded and inadequate monitoring regimes’ it was apparent that rivers in England were ‘in a mess.’

‘A ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic is polluting the waters of many of the country’s rivers. Water companies appear to be dumping untreated or partially treated sewage in rivers on a regular basis, often breaching the terms of permits that on paper only allow them to do this in exceptional circumstances. Farm slurry and fertiliser run off is choking rivers with damaging algal blooms. Single use plastic sanitary products—often coated with chemicals that can harm aquatic life—are clogging up drains and sewage works and creating ‘wet wipe reefs’ in rivers. Revolting ‘fatbergs’ as big as blue whales are being removed from sewers, costing companies and their customers in the region of £100 million a year.’

The report also highlighted that ‘not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination’ and that ‘disturbing evidence suggests they are becoming breeding grounds for antimicrobial resistance.’

Responding to the report, Professor Watson, who appeared as an expert witness at the EAC inquiry on March 10, 2021, said: “The Environmental Audit Committee inquiry is the most comprehensive and in-depth investigation into river water quality for many years. The final report presents clear and alarming evidence of insufficient investment, ineffective monitoring, inadequate reporting, coupled with weak regulation and enforcement. All of this points to an urgent need for a major shake-up and re-think of the water sector, alongside stronger action to tackle pollution from farming and from highways.

“Early progress in the 1990s following water privatisation has clearly not been maintained. We now have a situation where almost every river in England is degraded by cocktails of untreated or partially treated sewage, agricultural waste, plastics and persistent chemicals.

“The risks to public health and to wildlife from poor water quality are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. Discharges of untreated sewage have become increasingly commonplace as a result of more frequent intense rainfall and storm events, despite those discharges only being permitted by law in exceptional circumstances. People spending more time outdoors, and the growing popularity of wild swimming, have helped to bring these issues to public and political attention.

“The EAC report sets out some clear and very welcome recommendations, including the enhancement of catchment partnerships, the use of technology to enhance water quality monitoring, better reporting and transparency, and more stringent economic and environmental regulation of water companies, and re-direction of agricultural support towards the environment. All of this is going to cost money, and the critical question now is how much of that should come from water customers, company shareholders, and public taxation.”

Professor Withers added: “In line with the evidence Lancaster University’s RePhoKUs project submitted, it is very reassuring to see that the report has highlighted and endorsed the need for every catchment to have a nutrient budget to allow targeting of appropriate and effective solutions to tackling nutrient pollution, and for the current outdated, inadequate and under-resourced water quality monitoring programmes to be greatly improved not only to help identify pollution sources better, but also critically to monitor future progress towards healthier rivers and our future water security. This is exactly what the RePhoKUs project has been calling for.”

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