There are many sources of pollution that blight our rivers: farm slurry; soil from compacted, over-grazed and tilled fields; industrial effluent; pesticides and road run off. But pollution from human sewage has received a peak of attention in the media and in politics over the past year. Although less than half of the problem with our water quality, sewage is highly emotive because none of us likes the idea of paddling children – and the growing ranks of wild swimmers – immersing themselves in human excrement. As well as the obvious, sewage also contains lots of visible plastic litter, and a cocktail of invisible and often untested pollutants such as antibiotics, pharmaceuticals and household chemicals that are thought to have complex impacts on aquatic wildlife in combination. Rightly, more and more people are asking why 21st Century Britain allows untreated sewage to spill into rivers, which happened for over 200,000 hours in England last year.
The Rivers Trust has helped to drive this debate by setting out a challenge over a year ago for Rivers Fit to Play In, and we are delighted that the government has responded with a consultation about the potential designation of the first designated inland bathing water on the River Wharfe at Ilkley. Importantly, we have also sought to inform the debate, not only with the publication of a map of combined sewer overflows, but also by making sensible policy proposals that could help solve what is a wicked problem for the whole of society.
Many have blamed the water companies for the problem and highlighted the eye-watering profits that they make. It’s true that some companies, such as Southern Water and Thames Water, have in recent years deliberately polluted rivers with sewage, which is clearly unforgivable. New management in both these companies has been apologetic and promised that it won’t happen again. The privatisation of a critical resource for our survival was always controversial. However, if one accepts this reality, then returning dividends to shareholders is of course essential for any industry seeking capital investment.
But the main reason for the discharge of raw sewage is not profiteering or dodgy management in water companies. Pollution from sewer overflows is a wicked problem is that it is caused mainly by the way rainwater is dealt with after it lands on rooves, roads, fields and paved patios. Our philosophy in the design of the built and natural environment for generations has been to hurry rainwater away as quickly as possible in ditches, gutters and pipes. Much of this vast amount of water ends up being combined with foul sewage from homes and businesses. It’s simply not feasible to expand sewage treatment works, or the network of sewerage pipes, to accommodate and treat this enormous volume.
So, the solution to sewage pollution is not dilution – in fact it is the opposite; we need to ensure that sewage remains as concentrated as possible so that it can be treated properly. We need to divert clean rain water away from the sewers and provide storage within the landscape to reduce the speed with which it arrives at rivers, which will also help tackle another wicked problem: the flooding that brings misery and huge economic loss to tens of thousands of people each year. Water stored in the landscape in ponds, aquifers and wetlands provides amenity value, biodiversity habitat, drought resilience and often the potential for carbon sequestration. Frankly, this reversal of our philosophy to water management over the past centuries is a no-brainer, and it’s essential if we want sewage-free rivers and resilience against the weather of the future.
Slowing the flow and increasing storage across our entire landscape is not something the water companies can do alone. It is also the responsibility of town planners, highways agencies, legislators, regulators, farmers, businesses, homeowners and NGOs. We are all part of the problem, and we could all be part of the solution. Rather than lobbing insults at each other on Twitter, we all need to work together to achieve consensus about a plan based on reliable evidence, to pool resources and to deploy rapidly a wide range of cost-effective, nature-based solutions in every catchment.
Everyone at The Rivers Trust is focussed on making positive outcomes a reality, rather than pointing fingers at individuals and individual organisations for systemic failures which are not necessarily of their making.