Water Pollution in the UK – can we bring life back to our rivers and seas?

Wild swimming or just ‘swimming’ or ‘bathing’ outdoors has a long history.  In the early 19th century, the romantic poets Keats, Coleridge & Byron indulged in ‘hydromania’ (an obsession with sea bathing), mainly for the health benefits.  Today, swimming in the open air has become a popular pastime, especially for many urban dwellers who want to connect with nature.  The benefits of wild swimming focus around cold water immersion which has been proven to strengthen the immune system and support mental health.

But can we trust that our rivers and seas are safe for bathing?

Rivers in the spotlight

The spotlight has turned on river water quality and it is not good news for wild swimmers.  Sewage spills from water authorities have become commonplace, toxic agricultural run-off and plastic waste have destroyed the health of our rivers.

The latest report to the Government on river water quality is highly critical:

Image Credit – Insung Yoon

rivers in England are 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,”

and the summary continues:

Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination. Disturbing evidence suggests they are becoming breeding grounds for antimicrobial resistance”, House of Commons Committee Report, 2022.

This paints a bleak picture of rivers in the UK.  In England, rivers include 85% of the world’s precious chalk streams, yet only 14% are in good ecological health, and every single one fails to meet chemical standards.

We know that wild salmon are a good indicator of river quality and as the Prince of Wales said “When all is well with the salmon all is well with the world!”. Data from The Atlantic Salmon Trust shows that the number of salmon in UK waters has reduced by 70% in the last 25 years.  In January 2020, the Scottish Government accepted that “salmon are in crisis”.   There is no doubt that our freshwater environments are in a very poor state.

What is causing poor river water quality?

The Rivers Trust says that farming and wastewater are the main offenders polluting our waters. The single most important reason for poor river water quality is the discharge of sewage.  This is either treated effluent (43%) or untreated (12%) which occurs during storms/high water when raw sewage overflows into rivers.

Poor nutrient management from farms causes the greatest overall impact in rural areas and 36% of all rivers are affected.  Runoff from agricultural land typically contains pesticides, fertilisers and animal waste and often veterinary medicines (e.g. antibiotics). These pollutants usually enter the environment directly, accumulating in the soil before entering nearby water courses.   More than a quarter of rivers are polluted with animal waste and slurry.

Today the Wye, one of Britain’s most beautiful rivers often looks more like a pea soup in summer because of algal blooms. Harmful algal blooms produce extremely dangerous toxins that are poisonous to people and animals and create dead zones in the water where nothing will survive. The River Wye is polluted by raw sewage and agricultural waste from huge chicken farms and despite many local campaigns, the river remains under serious threat.

Image Credit – Surfers Against Sewage

People love to sea bathe often in all weathers but pollution in our coastal waters is now affecting swimmers and sailors.  Surfers against Sewage (SAS) report that in 2019 there were over 2,000 sewage discharges into UK coastal bathing waters in the summer period alone (May-September) and in the same year, the sheer volume of sewage entering the sea meant that the UK was ranked 25th out of 30 EU countries for coastal seawater quality. When we surf, swim or play in water that has raw sewage in it we are at risk of gastroenteritis, ear, nose and throat infections, skin infections, and even hepatitis and e-coli. Poor water quality can also harm ocean wildlife, reducing biodiversity and damaging delicate ecosystems.

SAS are the only organisation that regularly test and publish UK coastal water quality data.  Their 2021 water quality report found that 5,517 sewage discharge notifications were issued by water companies over a 12-month period, an increase of 87.6%.  SAS puts the blame for coastal water pollution firmly on the water authorities:

“The findings of our report are shocking and outrageous, but they are by no means unexpected. The fact is, water companies continue to increase profits whilst causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequences. Instead, eyewatering sums of money are paid out in dividends to investors and huge pay packets are enjoyed by CEOs” Hugo Tagholm, SAS.

How can we help?

If you are affected by the appalling state of the UK’s open waters there are a number of ways you can help:

  • Share all the news on river & seawater quality with your friends and family.
  • Sign up for updates with The Rivers Trust (https://www.theriverstrust.org/) and SAS (https://www.sas.org.uk/). Become a member, donate, volunteer and sign petitions, email your MP and let everyone know your concerns about water quality.
  • Find out about water quality in your local area and call to account your water authority about their performance.
  • Always alert the water authorities if you have been ill after bathing.
  • Object to your local planning authority about any large-scale intensive farming operation where toxins and waste will end up in a river.
  • Continue to buy as many organic products as you can to reduce pesticides ending up in our rivers and seas.
  • Purchase organic non-toxic household & laundry products that will not add to the pollution and forever chemicals in our water systems (greenscents.co.uk).

Further Reading