British and Irish rivers in desperate state from pollution, report reveals

<span>The River Avon in Salisbury, Wiltshire. The report shows none of England’s rivers are in good chemical health.</span><span>Photograph: Mark Beton/Britain/Alamy</span>
The River Avon in Salisbury, Wiltshire. The report shows none of England’s rivers are in good chemical health.Photograph: Mark Beton/Britain/Alamy

The rivers of Britain and Ireland are in a desperate state from the impact of pollution, with not a single waterway in England or Northern Ireland listed as being in good overall health, a report said on Monday.

The Rivers Trust annual State of Our Rivers report reveals that the impact of pollution from treated and untreated sewage and agricultural and industrial runoff means rivers are in a worse condition than ever.

More than half – 54% – of rivers in England failed to pass chemical and ecological tests because of pollution from water industry releases of treated and untreated sewage, based on data from the EU-derived water framework directive (WFD) in 2022.

Agricultural pollution contributes to 62% of waterways in England failing to meet good standards for chemical and biological pollution. Urban runoff from transport contributes to 26% of rivers not achieving good overall status.

The report shows none of England’s rivers are in good chemical health, which means the concentrations of toxic chemicals are higher than the safe limit in every river. Failing to pass chemical tests means no river in England is considered to be in good overall health.

Just 15% of rivers pass biological markers for good ecological health. Ecological health looks at what is living in the river, and how modified it is. The presence, absence and abundance of species is a good indication of its general health.

Similarly, no stretch of river in Northern Ireland is in good overall health.

The trust’s chief executive, Mark Lloyd, said: “The State of Our Rivers report is a huge passion project for us, as it’s so important to ensure that science and evidence are at the heart of conversations about how to improve our rivers.

“However, it’s also much more than that, as it puts the data in the hands of the public so that they can join us in calling for the change that our environment so desperately needs.”

The Rivers Trust is calling on the public to push politicians to make changes to improve the quality of rivers. Healthy waterways help to mitigate the effects of climate breakdown, support wider ecosystem biodiversity, and improve health and wellbeing for communities, the trust says.

The key pollution markers in the WFD are a globally recognised test of the quality of rivers. But the Conservative government has made it clear it is going to diverge from these EU standards of monitoring in future as a result of Brexit.

In 2019, the last time the full water assessments took place, just 14% of rivers were in good ecological health and none met standards for good chemical health. There had been little or no improvement since, according to the Rivers Trust report, with rivers in a desperate state.

“Even the clearest-looking waters can contain microplastics, industrial chemicals, hydrocarbons, fertilisers and pesticides, and even pharmaceuticals,” the new report said. “Untreated sewage spills blight most of our rivers, and even treated wastewater still contains a cocktail of chemicals like pharmaceuticals, pesticides from veterinary flea treatments, nutrients and household cleaning products when it is returned to our waterways …

“Our rivers are not healthy – far from it and things haven’t improved since our last report in 2021.”

The trust said worryingly, data was more patchy than in 2019 when it published its last report because river sampling by the Environment Agency had decreased.

“Nearly 6% fewer river stretches receiving health classifications compared to 2019,” the report said.

Chemical pollution from ubiquitous, persistent and bioaccumulative toxins was found everywhere, the report said.

“Chemicals can persist in freshwater habitats for decades, so despite the lack of testing this time around, we can reasonably expect the chemical health of our rivers to still be very poor,” it said. “Our analysis of government data showed that, despite being banned 15 years ago, levels of the toxic ‘forever’ chemical perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) in freshwater fish in England is still found in concentrations on average over 300 times the levels deemed safe for aquatic life.”

The trust said more data was needed to truly understand the scale of the problems and deploy solutions to help rivers. But the government, since diverging from the WFD, has said it does not intend to publish results on river quality until 2025.

In England 85% of river stretches fall below good ecological standards and only 15% achieve good or above ecological health status.

Of the 3,553 river stretches the trust was able to gather data for, 151 had improved and moved up an ecological standard, but 158 had got worse.

The latest round of WFD assessments in 2021 revealed that 44% of Wales’s river stretches achieved at least good overall status. But Afonydd Cymru (Wales’s version of the Rivers Trust) has concerns about the way in which assessments for WFD are being carried out in Wales. It believes differences in waterbody status are more a reflection of differences in monitoring and reporting carried out by Natural Resources Wales, as opposed to any tangible environmental improvement.

In Scotland the proportion of river stretches assessed as being in good or better overall condition is now 57.2%, as found in Scottish Environmental Protection Agency classifications for 2022. This equates to an improvement in overall condition for 23 river stretches (to good status or better) since 2020.

In Ireland rivers are faring better with just over 50% of river water bodies achieving good or high ecological status. Ninety-four of the rivers in Ireland were not assessed for chemicals, but of the 193 that were surveyed, 60% failed and 40% passed standards.