Sewage and pollution in our rivers – who can be held responsible?


Farmers can be prosecuted for damaging short stretches of river, but when will water companies be held accountable for their actions, asks Andrew Livingston

Before and after images of the destruction of the River Lug by farmer John Price.
Images: Environment Agency / Natural England

From childhood we learn that living organisms need water to grow. Obviously, then, water is quite a big deal in agriculture. Farmers need clean, good quality water to help grow their crops and hydrate their animals.
Recently, news broke of a Herefordshire farmer, John Price, sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for irreparably damaging the River Lug, which passes through his land. The images are horrific.
The beautiful stretch of river now looks like a canal after he ripped out and felled 95 bankside trees before dredging the river and creating a hard-standing area along the banks.
Once again, farmers are negatively portrayed in the news.
Mr Price’s previous record, detailed to the court, dates back 35 years, and shows his attitude to environmental legislation as it affects farmers.
His latest actions were partly in breach of the 2018 Farming Rules For Water, which were introduced to reduce and prevent diffuse water pollution from agricultural sources. His is the first prosecution under those rules. I hope the farming community takes note – although only a minority would have acted as Mr Price did.

Farmer John Price was sentenced to 12 months in prison and ordered to pay £600,000 prosecution costs. A Restoration Order was also imposed. Image: Herefordshire Wildlife Trust

Raw sewage

The Rivers Trust states that only 14 per cent of England’s rivers are in good ecological health – and this includes 85 per cent of the entire world’s precious chalk streams (more than 40 chalk streams are found in Dorset and Hampshire). Every single one of England’s rivers fails to meet chemical standards. Rivers are being damaged and compromised not with diggers and chainsaws, but with raw sewage. Nationally, water companies are not doing enough to protect rivers from the sewage leaking into the fragile ecosystems – and nobody is holding them accountable. Last year, four Wessex Water bosses received eye-watering bonuses for hitting targets relating to the protection of the environment – in spite of many reports of sewage in the Wessex Water region’s rivers.The company’s chief executive, Colin Skellett, received £61,548 from a total bonus of £189,500 last year ‘for meeting environmental targets’, despite Wessex Water’s environmental rating in fact dropping from four stars to two.

Map marking
discharges of treated and untreated sewage and storm water into Dorset rivers in 2022
© Rivers Trust

No phosphate removal

The Parrett and Yeo Phosphate Pollution Study, which tests water quality in the River Parrett – flowing from Cheddington in West Dorset to Bridgwater Bay in Somerset – has consistently found harmful levels of phosphates. Wessex Water has blamed farmers but the study found that phosphate levels in the river never dropped, even when the streams entirely dried up during the summer months.
The report suggests instead that the main sources of phosphate in the Parrett are the 11 sewage treatment plants whose outflows enter the river. None has a phosphate removal stage, and the report suggests that they account for more than 90 per cent of the phosphates entering the river.
The study also shows that where farmers follow DEFRA guidelines for farming near water, phosphate run-off into local watercourses is in fact almost undetectable.
If farmers are being charged with breaches of the new Rules and other environmental legislation, is it not time for water companies to be held equally accountable for the quality of the water in the rivers for which they are responsible?
The Rivers Trust has produced an interactive map here, showing where the sewerage network discharges both treated sewage and overflows of untreated sewage and storm water into rivers in England and Wales in 2022.
It’s all too easy to blame little farmers rather than to take on the big companies.
It has recently been announced that the government can fine water companies an unlimited amount for polluting rivers, with the money being used for the restoration of the waterways.
It’s a start.


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