Water quality campaigns

Updated April 2021 with the Panorama programme, update on the Philip Dunne bill, details of the evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee and a report by Salmon and Trout Conservation.

Updated January 2021 with the Defra task for announcement on sewage.

Topics covered: Sewage pollution and the political response, salad washing, phosphate, slurry, pesticides. Click on the link to move to the relevant section. 

The last few months have seen the issue of pollution in our rivers reach a high level of coverage and interest in the media, politics and the Government Agencies in England, and to a lesser extent in Wales.

With apologies to Scotland and Northern Ireland, this blog post is a roundup of developments in England and the more limited news from Wales. It is not a comprehensive summary but it does give a flavour of just how much is going on to highlight river pollution. If there are important campaigns missing, let me know and I will update the blog. Email me at dashton@​wildtrout.​org. 

Zero water bodies in England are in good status’ 

Based on 2016 data, only 16% of water bodies in England were defined as being in good status’ under the Water Framework Directive (WFD). In September 2020, that figure fell to zero. This is a result of changing how chemical status is measured rather than a direct reflection of worsening water quality. The EA now measure the bio-accumulation of chemicals in fish, crayfish and mussels rather than only chemicals in the water. 

Richard Benwell of Wildlife and Countryside Link has written an excellent blog Water quality – the true story’ that gives a clear explanation of the measurements and what needs to be done to improve the quality of our water in our rivers. 

Sewage Pollution

First, a quick explanation of the term Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO)

CSOs, (sometimes now also euphemistically called Combined Storm Overflows) are owned and managed by local water companies and are permitted to discharge a combination of surface water and sewage into rivers during heavy rainfall to prevent sewage treatment plants from being overwhelmed and causing flooding. There is evidence that many CSOs are discharging sewage far more frequently than they should, causing rivers to become polluted with raw sewage.

CSO1 crop

April 2021: A Panorama programme highlights the extent of sewage pollution in rivers in England and Wales. 

Feargal Sharkey has been active in social and mainstream media for some time (e.g. BBC ) talking about the plight of chalk streams with regard to abstraction and sewage pollution, especially in the south and east. He is critical of both the Environment Agency and the water companies. This podcast with Pete Tyjas of Fly Culture is a good introduction to his campaign. The subsequent podcast with Martin Smith is an interesting follow up on the sewage issue.

Feargal also talks to the Chalk Aquifer Alliance about the Seven Deadly Sins‘.

A group led by Feargal is launching a Judicial Review of the EA’s failure to protect England’s rivers and to hold water companies to account for abstraction and sewage discharges. 

Feargal Sharkey

The Rivers Trust has a campaign on water quality Is your river fit to swim in?’ There is a useful map of CSOs on their website. 

This blog by Mark Lloyd of the explains that the issue of sewage in rivers is not only an issue for Water Companies to resolve.

A petition (now closed) led by Surfers Against Sewage for a group that includes the Rivers Trust, WWF and British Canoeing received 44,691 signatures.

The Angling Trust also has a petition: Anglers Against Pollution. 

Local campaigns relating to bathing water quality and CSO pollution are now well established. Below is a (probably incomplete) list: 

EA/Defra/Political response

A private members bill, Sewage (Inland Waters), has been proposed by Philip Dunne. It will have its second reading in Parliament in April 2021 (postponed from January).

Update April 2021 — this bill will not now be presented to Parliament. See Philip Dunne’s website for more detail. 

To support this bill, write to your MP using the form on the Surfers Against Sewage website.

The EA have written a blog post on CSOs and bathing water quality in response to an article in the Guardian.

In September, the EA announced that no rivers in England were in good overall health as they fail new chemical tests. All rivers in England failed the test for chemicals and just 14% of rivers are in good ecological status’ – no change since 2016. 

Also in September 2020, Defra announced a new Taskforce with the EA, Ofwat and Water UK to set out proposals to reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from CSOs.

January 2021 the Defra taskforce made an announcement that water companies would be more transparent about sewage in rivers and that they have committed to a significant programme of improvements to the monitoring and management of storm overflows over the next five years at a cost of around £1.1 billion.’

In March 2021, the House of Commons Environmental Audit committee heard this damming evidence, particularly from Guy Linley-Adams of Salmon and Trout Conservation, who also produced this excellent report about the Environment Agency’s role in protecting rivers in England.

Vaughans pic smelly comp

A smelly discharge on the River Windrush. Photo from Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP).

A Combined Sewer Outfall discharging 

Other pollution

Salad washing

Salmon and Trout Conservation UK have been monitoring the water quality on the River Itchen in Hampshire below the Bakkavor salad washing plant. Following pressure from S&TC, the EA took action against Bakkavor for discharging pesticides into the river at Alresford. Bakkavor announced in October that they were closing the plant.

The EA have committed to examine 50 other sites where permits have been issued allowing them to wash food (especially salads) and discharge into rivers and streams. It is prioritising sensitive sites where the discharge goes into chalk streams.


The Wye and Usk Foundation highlighted the issue of increased algal growth in the River Wye. Modelling showed this was likely to be due to elevated phosphate concentrations associated with a rapid increase in free range chicken farming in the Upper Wye and River Ithon. Natural Resources Wales has now agreed to a review of data on water quality and it seems possible it will (re)adopt more stringent phosphate limits. Wales Environment Link has called for a moratorium on planning permission for new poultry units in Powys.

Wye phosphate 2020
Algal blooms on the Wye. Image: Hereford Times

Slurry pollution

Slurry pollution is a significant issue for rivers in England and Wales in the beef and dairy farming areas. There is a better regulatory framework in England called the Farming Rules for Water which requires farmers to manage fertiliser, manure storage, and soil to avoid water pollution, though a lack of resource limits enforcement. A report by the EA regarding the River Axe in Devon shows that lack of enforcement of regulation results in poor practices and continued pollution. A recent WTT advisory visit to a 2‑mile reach of the Axe at Seaborough painted a sorry picture of ongoing abuse of the river; we have relayed our observations to EA and Defra.

Axe slurry
Slurry on the bed of the River Axe

Pesticides in pet flea treatment

Three years ago, Buglife raised the issue of pet flea treatments containing neonicotinoids entering our rivers and asked for them to be banned. The new research includes another potent insecticide, Fipronil, which is used in flea and tick treatment and is reported in an article in The Guardian. The pesticides used in flea treatments are banned in agriculture but are appearing in our rivers.