NO RIVER or lake in England is free from chemical pollution, making the country’s waterways some of the dirtiest in Europe.
All of our water bodies have failed their pollution quality tests, a new report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has found, despite a target for all waters to be in good health by 2027.
When figures were last published in 2016, 97 per cent of surface water was thought to be ranked ‘good’ for chemicals from households and farms.
But this figure was so high due to significant monitoring constraints – and the new figure represents more accurate measurements that reveal the true poor state of our waters.
Researchers found that in all surface water sampled, some chemicals were present and either being consumed or absorbed by local aquatic life.
They also revealed that England’s overall water quality has plateaued, with just 16 per cent of our waters marked as ‘good’ on an ecological scale – the same as four years ago.
The figures show that the proportion of English waters in good health is one of the worst in Europe, with a European average of 40 per cent surface water bodies in good health.
Our rivers and lakes are also the least healthy in the UK, with those in Scotland ranked at 65.7 per cent in ‘good’ ecological health, 46 per cent in Wales and 31 per cent in Northern Ireland.
The Government’s target in its 25 Year Environment Plan for 75 per cent of waterbodies in England to be in good condition ‘as soon as possible’ is now ‘all but unachievable’, experts say.
Environmentalists say the new figures demonstrate that the Government needs to urgently invest in turning our failing rivers into thriving blue corridors.
Ministers have admitted the report makes for uncomfortable reading, and have revealed a need for urgent action.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: ‘We need to go further and faster on reducing the environmental impact from storm overflows and other sources of pollution including chemicals and agriculture.
‘These results show we have a long way to go, with a new way of testing for chemicals more accurately reflecting what is in our water environment.
‘While it’s not comfortable reading, this will allow us to plan more effectively to tackle the scourge of pollution.
‘We are absolutely committed to achieving the water quality ambitions in our 25 Year Environment Plan to improve at least three quarters of our waters to be as close to their natural state as possible.’
Each year, millions of tonnes of sewage and other polluting waste are pumped into our rivers by water companies each year.
Some sites which are particularly badly hit include Poole Harbour in Dorset, which has been deteriorating due to significant water pollution.
More than 2,000 tonnes of nitrogen from rivers and wastewater treatment works flows into the harbour each year and has resulted in ‘profound ecological changes’.
Leighton Moss in Morecambe Bay is also badly damaged by water pollution, especially through run-off from dairy farms upstream.
The RSPB has been working to try and bring back Britain’s loudest bird, the bittern, to the site which has previously teetered on the brink of extinction.
Beccy Speight, CEO of the RSPB, said: ‘Our waterways are the lifeblood of our environment. We think of our rivers, canals, lakes and wetlands as beautiful landscape features but they are also vital to life, provide homes for our precious wildlife and, in good condition, can help tackle the climate crisis by storing huge amount of carbon.
‘But we are wrecking these incredible natural treasures through pollution and by extracting and draining too much water away.
‘It is time for the government to face up to the fact that international and UK targets meant to protect nature have failed – only legally binding targets and transparent, properly funded monitoring will lead to real change for nature.’
Richard Benwell, chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition of conservation groups, said: ‘Chemicals, sewage, manure and plastic are polluting our rivers, invasive weeds are choking them, and climate change and over-abstraction are drying them out.
‘Urgent investment is needed now to turn our suffering waters into thriving blue corridors for wildlife.’