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River Severn and Wye at risk of becoming ‘dead zones’

The view of the River Wye looking upstream from Black Bridge in Lydbrook (Pic: Carmelo Garcia/LDRS)

THE RIVER Severn and the Wye are at risk of becoming “dead zones” because regulators and enforcement agencies have been “asleep at the wheel for decades”, according to Gloucestershire civic chiefs.

The scathing comments directed at the Environment Agency and Ofwat came as Forest of Dean District councillors backed the creation of an action plan and called for a crackdown on river pollution in the two nationally important rivers.

Populations of salmon have fallen by 75 per cent across the globe with eels and elvers at risk of becoming extinct in the Wye and Severn, according to those calling for action.

Councillor Andrew McDermid, (G, Lydney East), who put forward the motion at a meeting in Coleford on May 30, said it is about reversing the progressive destruction of the Severn and the Wye, estuary and the coast.

“We are looking at the endgame of dead zones in these rivers due to the impact on them of various different types of pollution,” he said.

“Top of the list is farming run-off, pesticides and fertilisers, that’s 40 per cent, it is reckoned.

“Secondly, untreated sewage is 35 per cent and road run-off is 18 per cent. Plus now we’ve got a more modern form of pollution down to pharmaceuticals and microplastics.”

He said nobody is unaware of the public outcry over the sewage outflows “unchecked by the regulator the Environment Agency”.

A recent survey by the Soil Association found that 15 per cent of the public were unaware that farming was the biggest polluter of the country’s rivers, he said.

“80 per cent underestimate the proportion of chickens that are factory farmed and yet 75 per cent say they would eat less chicken in order to prevent the environment’s destruction.”

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Cllr McDermid told the meeting that, according to The Wildlife Trusts, ten per cent freshwater species are heading for extinction.

His motion said the council is witnessing the pollution of rivers from farm and sewage runoff.

And that the Severn has been identified as the worst river in England for sewage pollution, jeopardising ecological, economic and recreational activity and human health. While the Wye is already classed as “unfavourable-declining”.

River Wye pollution has been linked to the proliferation of intensive poultry units in the Wye catchment and the subsequent use of nitrogen and phosphorous rich chicken manure on farmland.

Chicken manure is a great fertiliser for crops but when these nutrients reach waterways they can lead to excessive growth of algae which can starve the river of oxygen.

Councillor Alan Preest (C, Lydney East) suggested writing to the Environment Agency who are responsible for water quality in the River Severn and Wye to seek their view on the situation.

However, cabinet member Sid Phelps (G, Lydbrook), who spent decades working in the water industry and the Environment Agency, asked members to temper their expectations.

“The whole country is infuriated with the state of the water companies and run off from some farming practices,” he said.

“The Environment Agency are part of the problem along with the other lacklustre regulator Ofwat who have both been asleep at the wheel for the last 35 years since privatisation and this is why we are in this pickle.

“The nutrient management board which has been running for eight years across councils which has been trying to influence the Environment Agency has not got very far.

“That’s not a failing of that board, it’s a failing of the system. That’s the failing of the regulator to actually take action.

“By all means write to the Environment Agency but don’t expect too much.”

Vicechairman Simon Phelps (I, Westbury-on-Severn) also suggested asking water firms to eliminate sewage discharges into the rivers.

“This is an appalling state of affairs,” he said.

“[The water companies] are attempting to negotiate with Defra and Ofwat to extend the number of discharges they make because they claim they are in financial difficulties,” he said.

“You can come to Wesbury parish in a period of heavy rainfall and find we have sewage running down the roads there. It is nationwide and it is appalling.”

The council voted unanimously in favour of the proposals.

From left, county councillor Terry Hale, Lydbrook parish councillor Colin Gibbons, Maurice Phelps, district councillor Sid Phelps and parish council vice-chairman Sharon Norris (Pic: Carmelo Garcia/LDRS)

In April this year, Government plans were announced to better protect and preserve the River Wye for future generations, including up to £35 million in funding and the appointment of a new ‘River Champion’ and taskforce.

Marc Lidderth, Area Director for the West Midlands, Environment Agency said the River Wye is a beautiful and important part of the UK’s landscape, resources and community wellbeing.

He explained they are introducing a wide-ranging plan which allows the Environment Agency to capitalise on its work already underway with partners, local farmers and environmental groups to tackle the decline in water quality in the catchment.

“Together we can progress the long-term solutions needed to restore this vital waterway.

“Since April 2023, the Environment Agency has carried out over 500 farm inspections across the Wye catchment, helping farmers comply with legal requirements and resulting in more than 315 actions identified to improve farm practices.

“These range from improving slurry storage to better management of nutrients. Our regulatory work will continue across the Wye, with Environment Agency officers inspecting farms as well as using technology such as satellite images and drone footage.”

Ofwat agrees that water and wastewater companies’ performance on the environment is simply not good enough, and they need to go further, faster.

“Where companies fall short, Ofwat acts – over recent years, we have imposed penalties and payments of over £300 million and in November 2021, we announced our biggest and most complex investigation into all companies’ management of sewage treatment works in England and Wales, with live cases into six companies,” a spokesperson said.

“Our investigation looking into this issue began in November 2021. Since this time, we have opened six live enforcement cases and have reviewed over 3,000 pieces of evidence.

“In addition to this focused investigation, we have strengthened rules to allow us to take enforcement action against companies that pay dividends to shareholders where their environmental performance does not meet our expectations.

“We have also gained new powers which mean bonuses will no longer be funded by customers if companies’ obligations to the environment are not being met.”