• Ayah Khan

Failed test: England’s river quality not up to standard


Rivers may seem unimportant with other issues such as climate change or ensuring agricultural techniques are sustainable taking the floor. However, rivers are essential to us for many reasons: providing a safe ecosystem for aquatic organisms, being drinking source for people, etc. Keeping them clean ensures the safety of a variety of ecosystems that live near or within it. Yet these rivers are littered with waste, spillages and more..

In 2020, more than half of English rivers failed quality tests for pollution. It was as a result of sewage discharge and multiple chemicals entering the water systems. 2020 data revealed that only 14% of English rivers are of good ecological standard, a rating that suggests they are as close to their natural state as possible. Only 14% of rivers pass the quality check. This represents a worse situation than Scotland, where the number is 65.7%, and Wales, where 64% are in good shape.

This can be blamed on lack of investments, or the cuts to the EA’s river monitoring scheme (Environmental Agency). The water bodies being monitored by the EA are failing the stricter new chemical standards highlighting that no water bodies are in good health. The EA themselves state that the chemical states of the rivers are anything but excellent suggesting the pollution from agriculture, sewage discharge is not being dealt with in a sustainable manner, which adversely impacts river quality. This all contradicts the government promise that by 2027, 75% of English rivers would be classified as “good”. However, that target looks far from achievable as of now.


Why is it important to have good quality rivers?

For humans and nature to survive, as well as for businesses to thrive, we need healthy waterways. Despite this,, none of the English rivers are considered healthy today. Crops, wildlife, nature sites, even our water bills, and so much more are affected by this.

Why is this happening?

The EA argues that the inability of a river to meet good chemical standards is the result of reduced monitoring. This, in combination with increased waste discharge into our wateraterways are damaged in 36% of cases by wastewater discharges from water companies, and 40% by run-off from agricultural industries, according to the EA.

Critics have said that cuts to the EA's budget and the reduction in its monitoring regime have hamstrung it. The agency's water quality sampling and sampling points have fallen by nearly 50 percent since 2013, according to Greenpeace. The truth is that 17 years after the Environment Agency was given responsibility, not a single river has met the good surface water standards. Feargal Sharkey (a river campaigner and former lead singer of the Undertones) said that it was catastrophic. The environment minister, Rebecca Pow, stated thatimmediate action is needed to reduce sewage discharges and address pollution from agriculture and chemicals. She described the data as uncomfortable to read.

What strategies are being adopted??

One of the main projects being undertaking at the moment to start cleaning is The Thames Tideway Tunnel. The River Thames is one of London’s attractions, but recently it has been faced with aesthetic pollution.

As part of the Thames Tideway Strategic Study (TTSS), Thames Water commissioned a study in 2000 to identify adverse effects of wastewater discharges on the Thames Tideway and to assess options for limiting them. TTTS investigated the use of Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) and source control measures but rejected the use of them due to the highly urbanized nature of the catchment, the high-cost implications, and the impermeability of London's clay soils. According to the TTSS, Crossness Sewage Treatment Works in the Thames Estuary should be linked to Hammersmith in west London by a 35km interceptor tunnel. The cost of this project is estimated at £1.7 billion. The strategy involved the creation of a series of pumps, tunnels and safes that will run mostly under the tidal section of the Thames river. It will facilitate the storage, transporting and capture of almost all the combined rainwater and raw sewage discharges that currently flow into the river. The waste will be transported and treated in a plant in East London. It will then be released back into the river after it has been treated.

85,000 single-use plastic bottles were collected and removed from the Thames between April 2016 and October 2019. Water bottles accounted for most of the collected bottles. Microplastics and mesoplastics (less than 2.5cm in diameter) were found at more than 75 percent of the sites surveyed.

Slowly, the government’s target for 75% clean rivers will be met in, just not in the next 6 years as originally intended.