The Riverfly Census: Full Report

“The Riverfly Census Report has been central to S&TC’s work for the past three years and coincides with the United Nations’ recent statement on the catastrophic state of the global environment. The results should worry everyone. Our message is simple; unless there is radical change our rivers will soon become lifeless.  With ever increasing mainstream public interest in environmental health and a desire for real change, government must use this opportunity to incentivise businesses to place the protection of our rivers, wild fish and all other water-dependent life at the very centre of what they do.”

Paul Knight, Chief Executive, Salmon & Trout Conservation

Milestone Salmon & Trout Conservation study reveals that sediment, sewage and commercial salad washing, are causing dramatic declines of keystone aquatic invertebrate life throughout England’s lifeblood rivers.

Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC) initiated The Riverfly Census to collect high-resolution, scientifically robust data about the state of our rivers and the pressures facing them.

To download the full report: CLICK HERE 

The Riverfly Census highlights worrying declines of aquatic insects in English rivers as a direct consequence of industrial, agricultural and domestic pollution.  Aquatic insects are the equivalent of “the canary in the coal mine” when ascertaining the health of individual rivers. Declines of up to 58% in some species have been observed in the last thirty years, with no sign of the trend reversing.

 Three-year high-resolution study, The Riverfly Census, employed standardised monitoring of aquatic invertebrate life in key English rivers to reveal dramatic changes in water quality and ecosystems.

The Riverfly Census data provides an overview of how pollution affects a particular river. The aquatic insect community is shaped by the quality of the water at each sample point and scientists are then able to decode this bug-based information. Armed with these biological snapshots, we are able to zoom in on particular problems and if necessary, carry out further invertebrate or chemical sampling.

Lauren Mattingley, S&TC Science Officer, added:

“It is an often-overlooked fact that invertebrates essentially run our planet. They make up the majority of species on earth and sustain all life. Aquatic insects are invaluable in unlocking the true story of water quality in our rivers. Much of the pollution threatening our waters is subtle and invisible to the naked eye. By looking at what species were there, and which are missing, for the first time we have been able to truly quantify the invisible stressors deteriorating water quality throughout England.”

 Urgent action from Government and the Environment Agency is required to provide more protection for keystone aquatic invertebrate life in English river ecosystems to prevent further declines.

S&TC attribute the root cause for the majority of aquatic insect declines to increased levels of Phosphorus (emanating predominantly from sewerage systems), deposition of fine sediment (the result of poor management of agricultural soils) and an overwhelming array of chemicals entering rivers (including flushing of pesticides from imported salad leaves)

Nick Measham, S&TC Deputy Chief Executive, commented:

Much of the scientific work done by or on behalf of S&TC is complex, detailed and unspectacular.  The results can take years to collect and interpret – but this is the heart of what we do, as, without the evidence, those who damage our waters cannot be challenged.”

Exacerbating the crisis facing the health of our rivers is a framework of weak environmental regulations, which too often fail to address real world issues such as the concurrent release of chemicals and their cumulative effects. When combined with a long-standing culture of apparent light touch enforcement, the existing regulatory framework is wholly failing to offer adequate protection.

Diminished regulatory resources and outdated monitoring approaches are also likely to be hiding the true extent of harmful emissions in river ecosystems. Only with robust long-term monitoring in the mode of The Riverfly Census can we truly understand the changes occurring in our freshwater habitats. The Riverfly Census has started to address the lack of widespread, high resolution benchmarking but considerably more work now needs to be undertaken.

 Dr. Janina Gray, S&TC Head of Science & Environmental Policy:

“The evidence is clear; our rivers urgently need our help. Current regulation and management are not managing to halt the frightening decline of aquatic insects, let alone reverse it. Our freshwater fish and invertebrates are being choked by fine sediments which should be on fields, not in rivers, and are subjected to chemical cocktails we don’t understand or try to monitor. If we want our children to be able to watch wild trout rising, a mayfly hatch emerging or a kingfisher feeding, the time to act is now.  This degradation is happening now, under our noses and on our watch. It is time for all of us to take action.”

Salmon & Trout Conservation is calling for action at the national level and is making a series of policy recommendations:

- Further investigations into the biological impact of phosphorus spikes. Without this work, the validation that discharge permits, based on an annual average of monthly samples, are providing for the protection of our rivers is highly questionable.

- Chalkstreams should have their own classification targets within the Water Framework Directive (WFD).

- Establish a standardised approach to monitoring fine sediment in our rivers and set appropriate river specific standards.

- Develop a national programme of species-level monitoring to provide the resolution required to detect pressures such as excess phosphates, sediment and damaging chemicals, and the benchmarking on which to make informed decisions.

- Include SPEAR analysis in River Basin Management Planning within WFD, to allow the biological impacts of chemicals to be assessed alongside other pressures, and requirements for additional supplementary chemical monitoring prioritised where necessary.

- Ensure the environmental protection offered by European legislation is transposed into and implemented through UK law, including the creation of Water Protection Zones where existing measures fail to protect water quality and river ecology.

- A review of discharge permit guidance to include measures to assess the cumulative and legacy impacts of multiple chemicals within the discharge.

- All chalkstreams to have bespoke invertebrate targets to drive forward improvements, whilst WFD classification targets are being developed.

Issued by Corin Smith comms@salmon-trout.org (07463 576892) on behalf of Salmon and Trout Conservation. For more information please contact janina@salmon-trout.organd nick@salmon-trout.org on 01425 652461

Reporting with a purpose

S&TC are a national organisation and we use evidence from local case studies to help instigate policy changes that will benefit UK wild fish populations. But, this is just part of the value - we are making all our Riverfly Census findings available so they can be used to inform local management and drive action.

Each individual river report is based on three years of surveying data. Where possible, we have linked up our findings with other existing literature and data. Using the available information we suggest where local fishing and/or conservation groups can focus their management efforts to achieve the best health outcomes for each of the 12 original Census rivers.

Some of our local reports can be found on the slider below. Alternatively, visit the Riverfly Census page and scroll down to the map.

We all have a responsibility to save the ‘King of Fish’

The publication of new Environment Agency byelaws banning the killing of salmon in the North East drift and coastal nets was very welcome news earlier this year and brought to a close a campaign by fisheries organisations that lasted some 30 years.

Scotland banned drift netting in 1962 and closed down its coastal nets in 2016, so most UK salmon are now able to reach their rivers of birth unhindered by home-water netting. It was a tremendous way to begin the International Year of the Salmon. However, the same is not true of salmon feeding off the West Coast of Greenland, an area where many of the UK’s multi-sea-winter fish go to fatten up. 

Getting the quotas right

The North Atlantic Salmon Conservation Organisation (NASCO) was originally established more than 30 years ago to set quotas for Greenland and the Faroe Islands, who between them caught nearly 4,000 tonnes of salmon at the height of their respective commercial fishing industries (Greenland in the mid 1970s and the Faroes early 1980s).  The Faroe Islands have not fished for salmon since 2000, although they reserve the right to do so if the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES) ever report again that there is enough of a surplus of fish in the North Atlantic to exploit.

Greenland is much more complicated. For many years, NASCO gave the Greenlanders a subsistence quota of around 20 tonnes of salmon – fish that could be caught and either sold in the local open-air markets or kept for food by the fishermen.  Commercial fishing was not allowed, and export was banned.  Private funds were even given from around the North Atlantic countries with recreational fishing to the Greenlanders to help them re-equip and target different species.

However, monitoring and enforcement of salmon fishing by the Greenland Government was only really tightened some five years ago, when it became clear that the actual salmon catch was veering towards 100 tonnes a year.  To be fair, it is a thankless task trying to oversee any coastal activity in Greenland, as the West Coast communities are so disparate – there is no road connection between them, with travel limited to those with access to either boat or plane.  However, when Government officials started to phone round the fishing community and ask for catch statistics, alarm bells were rung.

The current situation

In 2015, Greenland accepted a quota of 45 tonnes agreed at NASCO.  Unfortunately, some people with little knowledge of the background ridiculed NASCO for the size of the quota, when in realistic terms, it was actually halving the amount of fish that was now known to have been caught in previous years.  Coupled to the new quota was a new management and regulatory system adopted by the Greenland Government which put much greater emphasis on monitoring and reporting.  In 2018, the quota was reduced to 30 tonnes.

The bad news is that Greenland has just reported a catch of 40 tonnes for 2018!  However, rather than a return to the bad days, at least the government has a handle on the fishery now and, if it abides by the NASCO agreement, the 10-tonne excess will be taken off the quota for this season, which is comforting news for our MSW (Multi Sea Winter) fish.

What this means closer to home...

All this regulation and government support at Greenland and the Faroe Islands means that UK governments have an extra responsibility to protect salmon stocks at home.  Good for Scotland and England in taking decisive action over coastal netting, but we still have serious issues to address – open-net salmon farming, agricultural impact on water quality, habitat degradation, water abstraction, barriers to migration, predation – and for that we need a political commitment throughout the UK which is sadly lacking at the moment.

I have some sympathy for Greenlanders who generally have a far better grasp of what ‘sustainable exploitation’ means than we ever have – they still derive much of their protein from natural resources and realise how important it is to manage those stocks effectively.  So when an angler lands a salmon in the UK and has to return it to the water because of byelaws or fishery rules, rather than curse the regulators, spare a thought for the Greenlanders and Faroese and their sacrifice in the name of conservation.

Better still, understand that, as Sir David Attenborough said in our recent video, if we are not to lose the King of Fish for ever, we all have to play our part, in whatever way we can, to help Atlantic salmon through their present crisis. The International Year of the Salmon gives us the opportunity to focus on that very stark warning, and act now!

- Paul Knight, CEO

International Year of the Salmon – Our annual seminar in Wales

Latest figures reveal populations in 21 of the country’s 23 principle salmon rivers to be probably at risk or at risk of failing to meet their conservation limits. It was with this thought in mind that the recent S&TC Cymru annual seminar took on an International Year of the Salmon theme, posing the question: “Can we save the Atlantic salmon?”

The overall consensus

Robust presentations citing the latest discoveries in our understanding of salmon population dynamics left delegates in no doubt that a new approach towards habitat management and water quality management is required if we are to maximise spawning success and achieve maximum escapement. Learn more about how S&TC are fighting for healthy habitats here.

Central to achieving good water quality is a science-backed understanding of what the pressures are. Our Riverfly Census provides critical insights into the health of the freshwater environment, but also provides benchmarks against which to assess the success or otherwise of various management interventions.

It is imperative that the Riverfly Census work is continued through its future development and expansion into S&TC’s SmartRivers; where local people will be able to harness the power of species-level invertebrate analysis to pinpoint water quality pressures on their own rivers.

Summary of the day

Proceedings began with a passionate personal account by author and broadcaster Will Millard of the important role salmon, clean rivers and wild fish have played in his life and his desire to see them restored and protected. Our CEO Paul Knight explained the important and role S&TC has played over the past century advocating on behalf of salmon while deputy CEO Nick Measham revealed the manner in which our Riverfly Census can be used to highlight the threats facing the invertebrate population upon which salmon parr depend.

Dr Nigel Milner related the role played by the IFM at NASCO and the need to revise current stock assessment methods to better understand and predict the dynamics of salmon populations. Ian Davidson of NRW continued the stock assessment theme and the
important role played by the Welsh Dee or Dyfrdwy as an index river. The dynamics and fate of small and declining salmon populations were presented by Professor Carlos Garcia de Leaniz of Swansea University who also drew attention to the hitherto underestimated importance of salmon choosing to spawn in different rivers to those in which they originated. The morning session was drawn to a close by author and Gamefisher editor Tom Fort who narrated a fascinating thousand year history of salmon exploitation in British rivers by both nets and rods.

The afternoon session got under way with a comprehensive and encouraging report from Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water’s Environment Programme Manager, Gail Davies, on the company’s
contributions towards conserving the freshwater environment and safeguarding the future of our wild fish. Dr Guy Mawle gave a detailed and valuable account of his own thoughts and observations, posing some challenging questions regarding possible reasons for recent declines in reported salmon numbers from his home river, the Usk. Drawing the theme of the day to a close, Dr Stephen Marsh-Smith OBE of Afonydd Cymru and the Wye and Usk Foundation related his own conclusions drawn from a long and intimate connection with the Wye and offered some valuable suggestions on the steps required if we are to see our salmon stocks return to truly sustainable levels.

Our Fundraising Manager, Guy Edwards, then gave a short but powerful presentation on the value of our financial independence and the need to allow science to lead us in our campaigning efforts. This was followed by S&TC trustee Tony Bostock who provided a very useful summary of the day’s proceedings before thanking the contributors for their valuable contributions.

Seminar coordinator and S&TC’s National Officer for Wales, Richard Garner Williams, wishes to thank all concerned for making the day such a success and looks forward to repeating the exercise in 2020.

Header image credit: Alan Ward at country field media.

For Welsh enquiries contact: wales@salmon-trout.org

For Riverfly Census enquiries contact: lauren@salmon-trout.org

Local myth-busting with the Riverfly Census Conclusions

You’ve probably seen our local Riverfly Census Conclusion reports popping up over the past few weeks. Now we’re tying up the Riverfly Census project, we thought it would be useful to let you know what these reports mean, how they can be used and the exciting things planned as we draw closer to the big Riverfly Census finale in May!

 

A bit of Riverfly Census background

At S&TC we were determined to grasp a true biological picture of our rivers, because detailed, robust baselines of their health are missing.

Without a strong data baseline it is difficult to pinpoint exact pressures or confidently measure improvement. A doctor could not assess your health without scans, tests or a family history - our rivers are no different! Cue the launch of the Riverfly Census, a national research project developed to assess and diagnose the health of a variety of UK rivers.

Aquatic invertebrates were our ‘scan’ of choice because:

They represent a long-term picture, much more informative than a single point water sample, as in nymph form they are exposed to the water sometimes for years.

They are excellent story tellers as every invertebrate species thrives in a specific set of conditions. The types of bugs present and absent from a sample indicate what pressures a river may be experiencing.

Reporting with a purpose

S&TC are a national organisation and we use evidence from local case studies to help instigate policy changes that will benefit UK wild fish populations. But, this is just part of the value- we are making all our Riverfly Census findings available so they can be used to inform local management and drive action.

Each individual river report is based on three years of surveying data. Where possible, we have linked up our findings with other existing literature and data. Using the available information we suggest where local fishing and/or conservation groups can focus their management efforts to achieve the best health outcomes for each of the 12 original Census rivers.

Some of our local reports can be found on the slider below. Alternatively, visit the Riverfly Census page and scroll down to the map.

What's next?

There are still a few local reports to be completed, but our main focus at the moment has been putting together the national Riverfly Census conclusions; an overarching document with evidence based recommendations from our data.

The most powerful aspect of our Riverfly Census was that all the data was collected and analysed independently by professionals. Because of this, the Census is not just more science for the sake of science, it is usable data that can be used to shape environmental policy.

Wild salmon and trout need the best water quality possible to thrive, and if we can get decision makers to take on some of our recommendations, we believe we will get one step closer to achieving the environment they need.

 

The national Riverfly Census report will be launched on the 14th May 2019, so keep an eye on our social channels or sign up to our mailing list to stay in the know.

 

Header image credit: Don Stazicker

For Riverfly Census enquiries contact: lauren@salmon-trout.org

Bakkavor ends use of cleaning products containing chlorine

Bakkavor has stopped using chlorine-based cleaning products at its Alresford Salads salad washing and packaging factory near Alresford.

This means that the chemicals used every night to clean the factory’s equipment will not be able to react to form chloramines which are highly toxic to water life even in extremely low concentrations. The EA and others stopped Bakkavor using chlorine in the daytime salad washing water some years ago.

This is one small victory in our campaign to stop Bakkavor’s salad washing factory at Alresford polluting the headwaters of the River Itchen SAC and SSSI - one of our finest and most highly protected chalkstreams.

However, two huge issues remain:

  • The overnight cleaning products are still being discharged straight into the upper reaches of the Itchen rather than to the sewage system;
  • Pesticides washed off the salad crops are also entering the river via an adjoining watercress bed with no monitoring for these potential lethal pesticides taking place.

The solution to the overnight wash is clear: under the precautionary principle, it must be tankered away or connected to the sewer (as Vitacress does at its nearby plant on the Bourne Rivulet). We find it incredible that industrial effluent should be discharged to any river. Bakkavor will howl about the cost but why should any business, let alone a multi-million pound one, be allowed to dump potentially toxic chemicals in the headwaters of a SAC river.

The pesticides could be an even bigger threat to the Itchen. We notified the EA formally last summer about our discovery of a potential pesticide impact below the discharge point from Alresford Salads and the discharge point from the watercress bed operated by The Watercress Company (TWC). The water used to wash the salads is pumped to this adjoining watercress bed, flows through the cress beds and then discharges into the river.  TWC’s discharge permit has no pesticide monitoring conditions. Thus, it is possible this potentially lethal pesticide brew has been entering the Itchen without any monitoring.

After our intervention, the EA has been carrying out intensive pesticide monitoring of these discharges and is due to report soon. We await the results with interest. Whatever the outcome, it seems clear that pesticides washed off the salads should be monitored and, if present in harmful quantities, removed whatever the cost.

375,000+ citizens tell the European Commission “Hands off our water law!”

375,386 people have called on the European Commission to defend Europe’s strong water law, making the EU’s public consultation on the legislation one of the largest ever in the history of the European Union.

This law is critical to ensure that Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands are protected and brought back to good health. As our Head of Science and Environmental Policy, Dr Janina Gray, explains:

"The Water Framework Directive gives a basic protection for our rivers and waterlife, and has resulted over the years in millions of pounds of investment, mainly from water companies.  Any weakening of the WFD standards would have catastrophic implications for our waterways and wild fish.

Over 375,000 people have spoken, sending a clear message that the WFD’ standards must remain as they are. This is of paramount importance in driving Government commitment to the protection of our rivers, streams and wild fish following Brexit."

Find out more: Protect Water

The NGO-led #ProtectWater campaign inspired citizens across Europe and beyond to take a stand for Europe’s rivers, lakes and wetlands, and the strong law which protects them, the EU Water Framework Directive, during the European Commission’s ongoing fitness-check.

“375,386 citizens have spoken up for Europe’s precious rivers, lakes and wetlands, and against their ongoing destruction. They have told their governments loud and clear not to undermine the EU water law - decision-makers must now listen up and take these voices seriously”

said Ester Asin, Director of WWF’s European Policy Office,

“With 60% of Europe’s waters in a critical state, the need for action from Member States is urgent. They were meant to put a stop to this destruction when they signed up to the Water Framework Directive in 2000, but, instead, have spent the best part of two decades brazenly side-stepping their commitments and not implementing it. We urge them to own up to their inaction today and, instead of pushing for this law to be changed, take citizens' views on board.”

The #ProtectWater campaign was led by WWF, the European Environmental Bureau, the European Anglers Alliance, the European Rivers Network and Wetlands International - who together form the Living Rivers Europe Coalition.

It facilitated citizens’ participation in the European Commission’s public consultation on the Water Framework Directive (the only opportunity for the general public to have its say during the EU fitness-check) to express their clear opposition to changing the legislation. It was launched in October 2018 and went on to be supported by more than 130 civil society organisations, including national partners and offices of Greenpeace, BirdLife and Friends of the Earth, as well as unions.

The EU’s official analysis of the public consultation, which closed on 11 March, is likely to be published in the autumn of 2019, with the final decision on the future of the legislation expected by the first half of 2020.

As Living Rivers Europe, we will be there every step of the way to ensure that the Water Framework Directive remains intact, and will continue to push for this visionary legislation to be fully implemented by Member States and enforced by the European Commission so that it that the vast majority of Europe’s waters are returned to good health by 2027 (at the absolute latest).

Septic tanks – the UK’s secret sewage problem

Septic tanks are not the most glamorous topic...

...But they are definitely the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to protecting our waters from nutrient pollution.

What are septic tanks?

There are a vast array of homes that are not linked up to main sewage treatment works. Where properties are located at least 50 metres from a sewer, septic tanks or package treatment plants are the dominant method of sewage disposal.

Septic tanks are essentially underground tanks. Solids sink to the bottom, forming sludge, and liquid flows into a drainage field, where bacteria take out the bad bits as it soaks into the ground. When used and maintained properly these ‘micro-treatment works’ do their job very well.

Why are septic tanks an issue?

It seems quite obvious, but to keep our wild fish and other water life thriving, they need a sewage-free place to live.

Wastewater contains nitrogen and phosphorus from human waste, food, certain soaps and detergents. If a septic tank is not operating correctly, these nutrients are discharged into watercourses. Excess nutrients are bad news for river systems.

There are a variety of reasons why septic systems fail, but one of the most common is poor maintenance. For example, irregular septic tank emptying may cause solids in the tank to block the soakaway and clog the complete system, increasing the risk of an environmentally damaging incident.

Another big issue is regulation around these micro-treatment works. Despite more rigorous regulations being recently introduced for installation of new septic tanks, the vast quantity of unregistered older systems still remain, with their condition and effectiveness largely a mystery.

Rules around septic tanks are also mostly advisory with a lack of top-level ownership around the issue. The absence of a single authority control has led to frequent installation of systems with inadequate drainfield designs, in unsuitable locations and with no common policy covering their registration or maintenance. Systematic inspections are also lacking, currently only discharges of larger systems with specific permits are routinely monitored for discharge quality.

What you can do

To keep our rivers healthy and bursting with life we need your help to keep them sewage-free.

  • If you are a septic tank owner, be responsible & educated.
  • There is some fantastic information around that will answer any questions you have. One of our favourite resources is http://www.callofnature.info/
  • If you know other family and friends with this kind of system, share your knowledge!
  • Report incidents - If you see a suspicious septic tank discharge to your local river, report it! Send us a photograph and a google maps location and we’ll happily take a look.

From source to sea: S&TC unite with Marine Conservation Society (MCS) to highlight plastic’s destructive journey

Present at every stage of their journey, wild fish are facing yet another threat: plastic pollution.

We've teamed up with Marine Conservation Society to highlight the issue, as we start to build a campaign which aims to educate on, and ultimately tackle, the enormous plastic problem our wild fish are facing.

Plastic Pathways

The continuous increase in synthetic plastic production and poor management in plastic waste has led to a tremendous increase in its presence in our water environments. Plastic does not decompose, it simply gets smaller and smaller. Consequently, plastic particles less than 5 mm in size - commonly defined as microplastics - are produced and persist in both seawater and freshwater systems.

Around 80% of marine microplastics come from freshwater run-off, meaning there is a whole period where microplastics persist in rivers before they are flushed into the ocean.

Where do microplastics go?

There are few watery places untouched by plastics, microplastics have been found even in the deepest parts of our oceans. Similar to ocean currents, rivers have their own distinct flow ‘fingerprint’, whereby no two rivers will transport material exactly the same way. A lot of this uniqueness comes from human interference - wherever we abstract water or build structures, we change a rivers flow regime.

This regime has a big influence on the journey of microplastics and determines what quantities remain in rivers and what quantities are delivered to oceans. In relatively fast flowing rivers with no obstacles, microplastics can be transported directly and rapidly downstream, straight into marine environments. However, in rivers with lower flows, or places where flow is disrupted (structures like dams and weirs) it is more likely that plastics will sink and persist in river sediments. Weather events can also facilitate or impede movement of microplastics. For example, heavy rain can trigger flood events that flush out plastic particles bound up in sediments, speeding up delivery to the ocean.

Sadly, the ultimate fate of microplastics, regardless of their delivery route, is usually in the digestive tracts of wildlife.

These plastic particles are easily mistaken for food and ingestion can mimic fullness and deliver harmful toxins to the animals that eat them. From riverfly insects to whales, plastic pollution is disrupting the natural balance of our ecosystems through its influence on food chains.

Working together

It is essential that to protect our oceans and rivers we stop plastics at source.

We are excited to be working with MCS to raise awareness about the connectivity of plastics from source to sea. Their work on changing policy around single-use plastics has never been more important and we will be adding our voice to help strengthen the case for protection of our freshwaters, as well marine.

To kick start the collaboration, we have developed this infographic to help teach more people that when it comes to plastic, rivers and oceans go hand in hand.

plastic pollution

As our plastics campaign lead, Lauren Mattingley summarises,

"Only by understanding the dynamics of microplastics in freshwater, will we be able to effectively measure and manage the contribution to our oceans, in turn protecting both marine AND freshwater life."

Visit our plastics campaign page to find out more:

A dismal end to 2018 for water companies, their regulators, and the government

The end of 2018 was not pretty for water companies.

Sadly, as always, our environment and waterways bear the brunt. 

 

Thames Water: deliberately ignoring alarms

First up was Thames Water, fined £2 million at Oxford Crown Court on 21st  December for a pollution incident in 2015 in which two Oxfordshire streams were polluted with raw sewage killing many fish.  

The Court heard that Thames Water had disregarded more than 800 high priority alarms in the six weeks prior to the incident, and a further 300 alarms were reportedly not properly investigated, which would have indicated that a key sewage pumping station was about to fail. A further alarm was apparently deliberately deactivated by staff during a nightshift.

Thames Water should hang its head in shame.

Southern Water: ongoing Ofwat investigation

Next up was Southern Water. Following a freedom of information battle with Ofwat, just before Christmas, we finally received confirmation from Ofwat that an investigation into Southern Water, begun in 2017, remains ongoing.

Ofwat has revealed that it is investigating breaches relating to the company’s general duty to provide and maintain its sewerage system to ensure its area is effectually drained, pursuant to section 94 of the Water Industry Act 1991.  Section 94 is, in effect, the core duty for the bigger water companies – the law requires them to collect and treat sewage properly.

Ofwat has confirmed that the investigation covers all of Southern Water’s wastewater treatment works, and that it is looking also at the company’s own reporting of compliance information to Ofwat between 2010 and 2017 in relation to those wastewater treatment sites.  

Obviously, while nothing is yet concluded, the fact that an investigation is now one and half years old and is dealing with such fundamental issues as the company’s general duty to provide and maintain a sewerage system, strongly suggests that Ofwat is not happy.

Ofwat and the Water Conservation Report

But Ofwat itself has hardly been the most aggressive of regulators and it is about time that it found its teeth. If any further evidence was required that Ofwat needs to start biting, it was delivered by the Government’s Water Conservation Report 2018  - slipped out on 19th December as we all left for the Christmas break.

The Water Conservation Report identified that water company leakage still represents about 22% of all treated water put into the supply network and has scarcely reduced since 2014.  In 2018 eight water companies missed their leakage targets. On the demand management side, per capita consumption of water has scarcely changed in recent years and only 50% of households have a metered supply.  

If one delves into Hansard, the record of Parliamentary debates and committees, it is not hard to find references going back over many years to the need to reduce leakage, increase metering and conserve water.

If one were to read watery debates from the 1990s or, indeed, those leading up to the Water Act 2003, the story would be depressingly familiar to the one we are presented with today.  

Moving forward in 2019

Both Government and Ofwat need to pull their respective fingers out – there are positive signs that the new regime at Ofwat might deliver more environmental protection than in the past, but the jury is still out.

We must have decisive action to reduce per capita consumption of water, introduce universal metering of domestic and industrial consumers (with appropriate safety nets for those essential users who need large supplies) and to finally get a grip of water company failure to address leakage.  

On protecting rivers from low flows due to over-abstraction, the Water Act 2014 requires the Government to report to Parliament by the end of May on progress on abstraction reform. One fears it will have very little new to say.

If the Government’s bold claims, to wish to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better condition than we found it, are to mean anything at all, the time for writing more reports, reviews and consultations is over. Action involving aggressive enforcement of the existing law must now follow.

Water companies must improve

However, while we can and should bemoan the chronic lack of firm action by Government, and by Ofwat, and indeed by the Environment Agency in failing to pursue more prosecutions against water companies, the real blame for the damage caused to the water environment by over abstraction, by sewage pollution, and by a general lack of stewardship, falls clearly at the feet of the water companies.  

Those of us in the NGO sector who have been ‘around the block’ have attended so many meetings with water company representatives, all so wonderfully reassuring, promising to sort out the problems. But it is easy to forget that it is now thirty years since water privatisation.

The ongoing failure of the water companies to bring their environmental performance up to a reasonable standard over three decades is a national shame.

 

- Words by Guy Linley-Adams, S&TC's Lawyer

Using data to protect wild fish: River Coquet hydropower

River Coquet Hydropower

With the feed-in-tariffs for hydropower ending in March after little activity over the past couple of years, the beginning of 2019 has seen a flurry of applications for new hydro schemes.

For us, this has once again highlighted the importance of our Riverfly Census data to provide evidence, not just anecdote, on the state of our rivers.  

We recently used data from the Census in our response to a hydropower application on the river Coquet.

On this important salmon river, the Census results, which are collected at a higher resolution and frequency than the Environment Agency’s own data, indicate some phosphate, sediment and pesticide pressures already impacting the reach in question.

This, coupled with the Coquet salmon currently classified as ‘probably at risk’ and seatrout ‘at risk,’ surely means we should take a precautionary approach to such developments?

The recent closure of the north east drift nets will be a very important step to improving salmon stocks in this area, but this is by no means a silver bullet.

We must use every opportunity to remove in-river barriers to migration, both upstream and downstream, such as the weir mentioned in this application, as well as improving water quality and salmon habitat too.

The power of the Riverfly Census has led us to develop SMARTRivers – taking the Riverfly Census out to local rivers by training volunteers to sample and analyse aquatic invertebrates to species level, to provide the evidence to drive change. For more information on how you can get involved click here.