The health of England’s most treasured rivers is in dire straits, as an investigation by The Observer reveals that over 90% of their freshwater habitats are in an unfavourable condition.
These vital waterways are grappling with a multitude of issues, including agricultural pollution, sewage contamination, water abstraction, and the scourge of microplastics. Even worse, none of the approximately 40 rivers in England with protected habitats can boast an overall good health status, according to an analysis of government inspection reports. Among these ailing rivers are well-known ones like the River Avon in Hampshire, the Wensum in Norfolk, and the Eden in Cumbria.
Intriguingly, recent government figures underline the dire state of these habitats within Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), with a mere 9.9% considered to be in favourable condition. These SSSI areas encompass not only freshwater habitats but also adjacent woodlands, marshes, and fenlands. In stark contrast, 59.4% of protected habitats on coastal and estuarine sites are deemed favourable. The root of the issue appears to be a dangerous mix of pollution, stemming from agricultural runoff, sewage discharges, and the pervasive threat of microplastics, coupled with destructive human activities such as dredging.
The investigation’s analysis of 256 assessments on 38 English rivers designated as SSSIs paints a grim picture, with just 23 of these (a mere 9%) achieving a favourable condition status, indicating they are in good health and being adequately conserved through appropriate management.
“It is an utter disgrace,” said Charles Watson, founder and chair of the charity River Action, which raises awareness of river pollution and the need for solutions. “These should be the most protected river catchments in the country, but there has been a total failure of regulation.”
In a disturbing revelation, some sections of SSSI rivers have not been inspected since 2010 due to a lack of funds. In response to this evident oversight, concerned citizens and volunteers across the country are stepping in to assess the quality of their local rivers. They are simultaneously calling for action to counter what they perceive as an inadequate government inspection regime.
A deeply worrying sentiment among campaigners is the belief that the government is not giving this issue the serious attention it deserves. SSSIs are designed to serve as protectors of England’s most vital natural heritage areas, and Natural England, the conservation watchdog, is legally obligated to safeguard them. However, when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) was asked to provide a list of SSSI rivers and their current status, it claimed it was unable to obtain such a dataset.
This crisis extends to some of England’s most iconic rivers. For instance, the River Avon, renowned as one of the country’s most diverse chalk streams, hosts 17 stretches of river and streams designated as protected habitats, yet only two are considered to be in favourable condition. “Water quality fails on several indicators,” said an assessment from September 2021.
The River Wensum, coursing through north-west Norfolk to its confluence with the River Yare, grapples with excessive phosphate levels at all monitoring points, a situation detrimental to the health of its habitats.
The River Eden in Cumbria faces a similarly grim situation, with all 35 stretches of water designated as protected habitats falling short of the favourable condition status. Assessments reveal physical barriers obstructing salmon migration and several sections exceeding phosphorus limits. Charitable organisations, such as the Eden Rivers Trust, have been diligently working to protect and rehabilitate the river.
The River Itchen in Hampshire, featuring six SSSI units, is also classified as unfavourable. In addition, all four assessed stretches on the River Kennet, a tributary of the Thames, carry the same undesirable status, though there is hope of recovery through a comprehensive river health improvement strategy.
A June 2022 assessment by Natural England has identified low water flow, discharges from sewage treatment systems, and channel modifications like dredging as long-term issues affecting the condition of these rivers.
The situation of the River Wye was downgraded in May, owing to concerns about intensive chicken farming’s impact and water sampling conducted by volunteers. All seven SSSI stretches of the Wye now bear the “unfavourable-declining” label, as do all four SSSI units on its tributary, the River Lugg. The River Wye has witnessed declines in salmon and white-clawed crayfish populations, while water quality in the Lugg has also deteriorated.
The Environment Agency and Natural England have initiated a collaborative river restoration program covering around 30 rivers and their catchment areas. These projects are ongoing, aiming to restore rivers like the Avon, Eden, Wensum, Kennet, Itchen, Wye, and Lugg. Nevertheless, the River Restoration Centre, which advises the government on this program, emphasises the need for additional resources to address the crisis adequately.
An assessment published under the EU Water Framework Directive in September 2020 revealed that only 14% of rivers in England had achieved good ecological status, with none meeting the criteria for good chemical status. Government targets for rivers to attain good chemical and ecological status extend from 2027 to 2063.
Natural England’s chair, Tony Juniper, said: “We are incredibly fortunate to have so many fantastic rivers in England – including nearly all of the world’s precious chalk streams – and many of these rivers are protected because of their outstanding natural features.
“However, most are under huge pressure, from overabstraction to chemical pollution and from physical modification, to now, also, the effects of global heating. Many of the pressures causing river health to decline, such as runoff from fields, can arise some distance away from our sites of special scientific interest, but cause damage nonetheless.
“That’s why an integrated approach is essential to restoring our rivers – working together with partners to deliver solutions that work for farmers, landowners and industry and the environment on which we all depend.”
“Working at the level of whole catchments is an essential part of this integrated approach, bringing together action on wastewater treatment, abstraction, farming, housing, infrastructure and physical habitat restoration to create rivers resilient to climate impacts.
“I’m very pleased the government is increasingly focused on catchment-scale action, which will help to deliver the national target to restore all protected sites, including SSSI rivers, to favourable condition by 2042.”
In response to concerns about the experimental nature of Defra’s published figures, a spokesperson for the department emphasised the urgent need to address the issue of deteriorating river health. The crisis in England’s rivers is both an ecological and environmental concern and underscores the necessity for immediate and comprehensive action to protect these precious waterways.
They said: “Overall, 89% of priority habitats are in favourable condition or recovering. But our rivers and rare chalk streams are hugely important to communities and to nature– as are the protected sites they flow through – which is why we are prioritising their recovery.
“Our environmental improvement plan, published this January, marked a step change in how we deliver our commitment to restore 75% of our protected sites to a favourable condition by 2042 – setting an interim target to turn things around now, helping nature to recover, and putting us on the right path to achieving this goal by 31 January 2028.
“Our plan for water sets out how we will tackle every source of water pollution alongside additional investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement on those who pollute. On top of this, our storm overflows discharge reduction plan set strict new targets on water companies and it prioritises action in ecologically important sites – such as SSSIs – so overflows in these areas are addressed. We will continue to work with Natural England and other partners to drive actions that return our protected sites to favourable condition.”
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