The quality of the UK’s river water is a huge political issue. The Wildlife Trust claims that “only 14% of river water bodies in England currently achieve ‘good ecological status’” and that pollution is the biggest threat to the freshwater environment.

Nowhere is this more relevant than in the River Wye, which has become the focus of a long-running investigation into water pollution by ITV News. The investigation highlights the raw sewage and unsafe levels of phosphates that lead to greater levels of algae in the river. The knock-on effects of this pollution are that fish are dying and fewer birds and bird species are able to find enough food. ITV journalists pointed out that millions of chickens are being farmed further upriver, and chicken droppings are high in phosphates. This pollution is combined with the high quantities of raw sewage that are being released into the Wye at the head of the river in Wales and carried downstream through Herefordshire and Gloucestershire.

Who is responsible for the River Wye?

The Wye’s main problem is that it flows between England and Wales and sometimes provides the border between the two countries. Anti-pollution campaigner Feargal Sharkey told reporters that both sides need to take responsibility. “The truth is ministers in both Cardiff and Whitehall need to take joint responsibility for this and actually start driving a real, genuine plan which will get delivered to a real timetable, with real funding, with real boots on the ground to make it happen.”

During Prime Minister’s Questions in January this year, the MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire asked Boris Johnson to increase pressure on agencies to tackle river pollution. The Prime Minister told MPs, "I had a memorable swim in the Wye myself I think at 5 o'clock in the morning once and it tasted like nectar." This infuriated local campaign group Friends of the Upper Wye who then very publicly sent a bottle of freshly collected River Wye water to the PM, giving him the opportunity to drink it. However, they did warn that it would contain “a heady cocktail of farm manure, sewage and other chemicals”, strongly suggesting that nectar was the last thing it would taste of.

What’s being done about water quality in the River Wye?

The Friends of the Upper Wye, has launched a citizen science project which is being supported by Cardiff University. Under the supervision of the university’s scientists, hundreds of volunteers have been testing water quality on a weekly basis - far more regularly than the agencies have the resources to do. They test the water for phosphates and nitrates, test the conductivity of the water as well as the turbidity, and keep an eye on the moss and the algae. As these citizen scientists live by the river, they are able to collect far more data than scientists alone could, giving a much more accurate overall picture of the state of the river.

What about the bigger picture?

In 2021, the industry body Water UK launched Ten Actions for Change. It pointed out that whilst a lot of work has been done to improve our waterways since the early 1990s, it’s still not enough. Over the last 30 years, around £30bn has been invested in the environment. However, it points out that: “huge investment has failed to increase the 14% of rivers rated good since 2009”. Recognising there is still a long way to go, especially in the light of climate change and the increasing popularity of open water swimming and leisure use of our rivers and lakes, Water UK is calling for joint action to increase monitoring, create new laws and bring about greater accountability as to how business water usage effects the local environments.

At Castle Water, we are committed to helping our customers improve their water sustainability. Download our free Water Efficiency Guide for practical steps you can take now, and keep checking our blogs where we regularly write stories highlighting sustainability and the environment.

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