New report reveals pollution is biggest threat to wildlife on our waterways  

New report reveals pollution is biggest threat to wildlife on our waterways  

- Beautiful, freshwater habitats that are home to an abundance of wildlife are being devastated by agricultural waste, raw sewage and pollution from abandoned mines, according to a new report 

- According to an online YouGov poll, 88% of those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland agree freshwater habitats are a “national treasure” and 87% want more to be done to protect them 

- Experts say that ‘without significant and urgent action some of our best-loved freshwater species face a perilous future’ 

A new report released today reveals that waterbodies across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are being devastated by poor water quality caused by agricultural waste, raw sewage, and pollution from abandoned mines.   That’s despite 88% of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland agreeing freshwater habitats are a “national treasure”. 

In England, only 14% of rivers meet standards for good ecological status, with less than half achieving these standards in Wales. In Northern Ireland, only 31% of water bodies are classified as good or high quality. The poor health of many of our waterways has a significant impact on nature, with many species in decline and some facing extinction.   

The Troubled Waters report  was commissioned by a partnership of environmental charities including The Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB, and the National Trust. It details seven case  studies including Upper Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, the Norfolk Broads in England, and Cardigan Bay in Wales, which have been designated as sites of special importance for nature. Yet these special places are not receiving the protection they should be and wildlife is suffering as a result. 

Some of our most iconic and threatened species such as otters, the swallow tail butterfly and salmon depend upon these sites. But widespread failure to control pollution has ruined the water quality of these sites and wreaked havoc on the wildlife that call them home.   

The authors also commissioned online polling from YouGov as part of the report. Most people surveyed (88%) agreed the UK’s lakes, rivers and streams are a “national treasure” and nearly nine in ten (87%) of the those in England, Wales and Northern Ireland agreed that it’s important that we do more to help the UK’s freshwater ecosystems, as they are an important part of our heritage, culture and identity of place.   

The survey also showed how these waterways are a highly valued part of people’s lives. Over the last year people said they had visited lakes, streams and rivers for a huge variety of activities – from playing “pooh sticks” to kayaking- with visiting a waterside pub, photographing the scenery and strolling down a waterside path coming out top as most popular. Almost three quarters (73%) of people agreed that having access to waterways for recreation is important to them.   

Wildlife was an important draw for many of the people surveyed with over three-quarters of the public spotting at least one of six iconic freshwater species. Dragonflies were spotted along waterways by nearly three-quarters of those surveyed, while 4% have seen a beaver. People responded enthusiastically when asked whether they would like to see more animals when they visit waterways. Kingfisher was the most popular choice (78%) but people showed similar levels of appreciation for otters, dragonflies, water voles, beavers and salmon.   

Research suggests exposure to waterways such as rivers, lakes and the coast, can boost physical and mental health and well-being, and that when people feel a place has more wildlife, it can have greater well-being benefits. 

However, the poll also revealed that almost half of those surveyed believe our waterways are in good condition just 10% identified agricultural pollution as the biggest issue facing water quality in the UK. 

RSPB's Deputy Director of Policy, Jenna Hegarty said: “It is no surprise so many people think of our waterways as a national treasure and revel in the magical sight of otters playing in our streams, dragonflies hovering like jewels above our lakes and the vibrant flash of kingfishers in flight.   

“But nature is in crisis and the incredible freshwater wildlife people marvelled at as they explored our countryside this summer is a fraction of what should be there. It is disturbing how it has become so normal for our waterways to be polluted and contaminated, and that many people do not realise there is something wrong.   

“Governments must demonstrate leadership and act with urgency and ambition to bring our waterways back from the brink of collapse and revive our world. Without this some our best loved species face an increasingly uncertain future.”   

Over the last five years concern about the impact of climate change and extreme weather on our waters has grown with 72% of people agreeing they were worried compared with 58% in a survey which asked the same question in 2015.   

Although plastic pollution is an emerging threat to our freshwater ecosystems, poorly regulated use of pesticides and fertilisers in farming is one of the key drivers behind water pollution in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Sewage and storm overflows are also contaminating our water on a horrifying scale with water companies in discharging raw sewage into our rivers 400,000 times in England and 100,000 times in Wales in 2020 despite laws stipulating this should happen only under exceptional circumstances. Chemical run off from mines has also polluted 1,500km of rivers in England alone.   

The report also calls for UK governments to urgently introduce measures to slash pesticide and excess fertiliser use in farming by switching to regenerative practises, ban raw sewage from reaching our rivers, introduce systemic change to the planning approval system and boost funding to agencies responsible for monitoring and enforcing environmental regulations. Without significant and urgent action some of our best loved species face a perilous future, the report said.    

Ali Morse, Water Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trusts, said: “Protected rivers like the Wye should be the ‘jewels in the crown’ of our natural world, alive with delicate aquatic plants, magnificent salmon and the elusive otter. But pollution is devastating these special places, and putting the wildlife they harbour at risk. While some pollutants can’t be seen – such as colourless nutrients from farming – their effects can be very dramatic. Vast algal blooms caused by fertiliser run-off, for example, turn our rivers pea-green and suffocate aquatic wildlife. People are fed-up with the lack of action to address these problems and growing numbers are calling for this abuse of our treasured freshwaters to end.” 

Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust said: “This report helps to quantify what those of us working closely with rivers have suspected for a while: the public’s appreciation of rivers as natural heritage has grown in recent years, especially as they have become an important refuge and recreational space during Covid; and our shared concern about the pressures rivers are facing is growing even faster.  This should send a clear signal to government and businesses to start prioritizing nature based solutions to improve the state of our rivers.  The Rivers Trust stands alongside the RSPB in calling for systemic change to planning processes and boosting funding to environmental agencies. 

Gail Davies-Walsh, Afonydd Cymru CEO said: “Freshwater biodiversity is declining at an accelerated rate when compared with marine and terrestrial organisms. This decline in freshwater life is accompanied by the widespread eutrophication of many of our rivers. Eutrophication gives rise to algal blooms which occur when too many nutrients (specifically nitrates and phosphates) enter the water column. This is a significant problem - not only within the Wye but across many of our valued and protected rivers. These blooms deplete the oxygen in the water to a degree that aquatic life (plants, insects and fish, etc.) are suffocated. 

“Algal blooms are only one of the many pressures on our precious water resources that need addressing. Immediate action is required to protect and enhance our blue spaces for current and future generations.” 

Karen Whitfield, Joint Director of Wales Environment Link said: “Our rivers are facing a range of pressures, some of which are new and some of which have been causing pollution for decades. In Wales, we’re particularly concerned about the worsening impacts of pollution on some of our most precious river habitats which have seen serious deterioration in recent years. Impacts that local people might not have been aware of previously are now so bad that they are visible to communities, who can see and smell the pollution and have noticed the loss of wildlife. We need serious leadership from our regulators in tackling this pollution urgently, so that wildlife and local communities can benefit from clean rivers and lakes.” 

Editor's notes

Survey figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2067 adults, of which 1889 were from England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Fieldwork was undertaken between 23rd - 24th August 2021.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).  

Why is our water in such poor condition?   

Pollution in freshwater ecosystems includes pathogens from human and animal waste, nutrients from wastewater and agriculture, organic matter from agricultural run-off, and chemical pollution from pesticides and runoff from mines.    

  1. Sewage and storm overflows – Water companies require permits to discharge untreated sewage into the local environment, which is allowed under certain exceptional criteria. However, recent monitoring has exposed the alarming rate that sewage is being discharged into our rivers. In 2020, water companies in England discharged raw sewage into rivers 400,000 times, and over 100,000 times in Wales.   

  1. Excess nutrients from agricultural run-off – Agricultural practices often use fertilisers, manure and slurry containing nitrates, including ammonia, and phosphates. These can spill over into our watercourses and feed algae, making oxygen levels in the water to drop, water quality decrease and kill animals and plants living in the water.   

  1. Pesticides including herbicides – Often applied at scale in agricultural systems to control unwanted plants and insects, pesticides can have significant negative effects on aquatic plants and wildlife. Costs arising from the contamination of drinking water with pesticides in the UK, has previously been calculated at £120 million per year. These costs are then passed on to people who pay for them through their water bills.    

  1. Chemical pollution from mines – Active and abandoned mines and waste heaps can cause pollutants, such as heavy metals, to be washed into local watercourses. It is estimated that over 1,500 km of rivers in England are polluted by mines, and in Wales, NRW has recently estimated it will cost £282 million to end water pollution from existing mines.    

Plastic pollution (a recent report found that the River Mersey in England was proportionally more polluted with plastic than the Great Pacific Garbage Patch) and pharmaceutical residue (The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development highlights some stark concerns about the impact of pharmaceuticals entering freshwater systems, including increased risk of some cancers and antibiotic resistance in humans and changes to the behaviour and reproductive success of aquatic species) are emerging threats to our freshwater systems but their impact is understudied.   
 
Whilst several pressures are causing the UK’s rivers, lakes, and other freshwater systems to be polluted, agricultural and wastewater pollution are currently recorded to have the largest impact. Latest reports from England found that 40% of water bodies are suffering from agricultural pollution, and 35% from wastewater from the water industry. In Wales, agricultural pollution has caused water quality failures in 113 waterbodies. There is very limited data available on the reasons behind failing water quality in Northern Ireland, and this lack of transparent information is a recurring issue.    

The impacts – what does poor water quality mean for wildlife and people?    

Poor water quality has numerous negative impacts on wildlife and the natural environment, including:     

  • Dangerous for bathing and costly to treat – some algae can produce toxins and can result in water becoming dangerous to bathe or swim in. Significant costs are associated with poor water quality including enhanced drinking water treatments, and losses from tourism.    

Water quality in England Wales and Northern Ireland  

In England and Wales, only 14% and 46% of rivers respectively meet the standards for good ecological status, and in Northern Ireland, only 31% of waterbodies are classified as good or high quality. 

How healthy are the UK’s protected sites?    

Even in protected sites, the supposed havens for nature, poor and declining water quality is having negative impacts. Across the UK, there are a variety of designations that areas can receive with the goal of protecting key habitats and species. These include designations of international (Ramsar), European (Special Protection Areas and Special Areas of Conservation) and National (Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in England and Wales and Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs) in Northern Ireland. However, despite the protection afforded to these sites; issues with water quality are undermining their capability to safeguard many of the threatened species and habitats the designations aim to protect.     
 
In 2019, Natural England reported that 89.7% of SSSI units classified under ‘river’ in England are currently in unfavourable condition.  In Wales, a 2020 baseline assessment by Natural Resources Wales found that 60% of ‘freshwater biodiversity’ features designated as SSSI or Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) were in unfavourable condition. In Northern Ireland, DAERA’s 2021 statistics report illustrates that 36% of ASSI features are in unfavourable condition. However, a lack of publicly available condition data makes it difficult to gain insight into the condition of river or freshwater features across Northern Ireland.      
 
For as long as polluted water continues to enter our protected sites, few species are safe from the devastating impacts on nature.      

  

Drivers of pollution

Whilst several pressures are causing the UK’s rivers, lakes, and other freshwater systems to be polluted, agricultural and wastewater pollution are currently recorded to have the largest impact. Latest reports from England found that 40% of water bodies are suffering from agricultural pollution, and 35% from wastewater from the water industry. In Wales, agricultural pollution has caused water quality failures in 113 waterbodies. There is very limited data available on the reasons behind failing water quality in Northern Ireland, and this lack of transparent information is a recurring issue.

Health benefits from access to the water environment

Recent research has found that exposure to waterways such as rivers, lakes and the coast, can boost physical and mental health and well-being, and that when people feel a place has more wildlife, it can have greater well-being benefits. It found that on average, coastal settings with higher perceived biodiversity were rated as offering greater restorative potential and were associated with higher willingness-to-visit. Men, and people with lower overall ratings, tended to be more sensitive to biodiversity levels, and older respondents believed coastal settings in general offered more restorative potential. Locations where a species was exhibiting High vs. Low fascination behaviours (e.g. murmurating vs. sleeping) were also rated more positively, highlighting the importance of wildlife behaviour on psychological outcomes, in addition to biodiversity.