Are you wild swimming or just going through the motions?
Online Comment editor Rachael Powell explores the problem of sewage in English rivers.
Next time you decide to go wild swimming and take a dip in a local river, maybe think twice. According to the Rivers Trust’s report on the health of English rivers, only 14 per cent of our rivers are in good ecological heath, and 0 per cent of our rivers have good chemical health. The causes of this are multifactorial, but the two main offenders are the agriculture industry and water companies.
The importance of English rivers should not be overlooked. 85 per cent of the world’s chalk streams reside in England – streams which are pure, clear, and are a ‘hive of biodiversity’ due to their unique mineral content. However, the pollution in our rivers has been damaging the chalk streams and, since 1970, the populations of freshwater wildlife have fallen by 84 per cent.
The pollution in our waters is not just affecting wildlife. It is no surprise that surfers and wild swimmers are concerned about the health effects from swimming in contaminated water, particularly after seeing footage such as this video of raw sewage being pumped into Langstone Harbour – and this is not just a one-time event. It has been reported that water companies released raw, untreated sewage into rivers more than 400,000 times last year alone. How are they getting away with it? Well, the act is technically legal: permits are issued by the Environment Agency to allow water companies to release raw sewage during times of extreme rainfall in order to prevent flooding. But this is for exceptional circumstances only. Water companies have abused this legal loophole and released raw sewage for more than 3.1 million hours last year.
Groups such as Surfers Against Sewage and The Rivers Trust have created petitions, organised sea clean-ups, and encouraged people to write letters to MPs as a way to put pressure on the government to change legislation and take water pollution seriously. And perhaps this pressure from social media and letters from the general public is starting to work: the government was supposed to oppose tougher legislation on water companies, but 22 Tory MPs ‘rebelled’ and supported it instead. Under this new proposed rule, water companies will have a legal obligation to reduce sewage releases into rivers and to monitor the water quality of storm overflows. For Surfers Against Sewage, this proposed legislation is a welcome change, but there is still a long way to go.
Water companies have abused this legal loophole and released raw sewage for more than 3.1 million hours last year
It is remarkable how much controversy there is around legislation that should be a no-brainer. But, as is often the case when it comes to politics, there is one problem we are overlooking: money. Thanks to our Victorian sewage system which is no longer fit for purpose, the cost of completely eliminating the release of sewage into our rivers could be up to £150bn, and some estimate it to be as high as £660bn. With cost estimates that high, and the difficulty of transforming our aged sewage system, many Tory MPs voted against the legislation for the sake of taxpayers.
Christine Colvin from the Rivers Trust, however, has pointed out that completely reworking our sewage system is not necessary. The Angling Trust estimated that the costs to reduce the worst sewage discharges would range from £3.9bn to £62.7bn, far lower than the government’s estimations. Surfers Against Sewage suggested that the government’s inflated figures were used as a way to shock the public, and that the cost of reducing the worst of the pollution is ‘well within the profits and dividends of these companies’.
There is hope for our water systems. At the very least, the government should introduce their proposed legislation. It would give water companies a legal duty to reduce the amount of sewage they pump into rivers – legislation that is long overdue and likely not strict enough. In the meantime, we should do what we can to protect the health of our rivers and seas: only flush the 3 P’s (poo, pee, and paper); put fat, grease and oil in the bin, not down the sink; avoid using chemical fertilisers. And next time you want to swim in a river or lake, maybe check out The Rivers Trust’s sewage map before you go.