Simon Evans on a bridge over a river

From the Frontlines: Fighting River Pollution on the Wye and Usk

In our CEOs’ newsletter this month we hear from Simon Evans, CEO of Wye and Usk Foundation. The Wye was in the spotlight this month with the Rivercide documentary highlighting the cumulative impact of poorly regulated farming.

Rebecca Duncan


As I sit here sweltering in the Black Mountains, the amount and variety of work that WUF undertakes never ceases to amaze me. As a ‘see problem, fix problem’ organisation that works on a whole catchment scale (6,750km2, across 2 countries and 4 counties), is it inevitable that we are where we are.

Right now, staff are out adding lime to the acidified headwaters, delivering fencing, planning the gravel introductions below reservoirs, as well as this year’s fish passes. We have just finished the second giant hogweed pass of both rivers (>200km walked/canoed) and are about to check on the effect of the balsam rust introduction. Nine staff are working with >1,000 farmers mainlining mid-tier, Natural Capital and flood monies into the best places to solve the problems afflicting the river. The Welsh Fishing Passport is surging thanks to the national staycation craze, with a 20% increase on last year’s record sales. The Education Officer visited two schools in the last week of term and is now developing videos to support our Flood and Coastal Risk Management projects. Our new department charged with developing offsetting and Natural Capital opportunities won two major contracts this week; offsetting wetlands are coming to fruition and the department looks set to grow from 0.6 staff to over 8 by year end!

The shenanigans over managing our five canoe agreements have combined with managing fishing as the water temperatures soar. We are trying to get an Usk catchment partnership off the ground, and developing relationships with partners, governments and politicians. The data from the sonde on the Ithon needs further analysis, but the monitoring team are out electrofishing 400 sites, and we have an explosion of citizen science and PR from the Wye, which seems to have become the nation’s go-to for a polluted river, in large part due to our PR last year!

Since 2016 we have made a concerted effort to widen our funding base. Not all has worked as well as we hoped, but WUF is now growing fast, which is creating its own set of challenges. We have developed an impressive toolbox, with area payments, better deals with buyers, and thriving peer groups, but market pressures, climate change and poor planning are powerful adversaries.

The continuing build-up and ever-increasing loss of legacy phosphate to water is a huge concern. Intensive livestock farming, concentrated into small areas by planning and market forces, inevitably creates a legacy of contaminated soils. This will pollute our rivers for generations unless we can think outside the box now. Being WUF, we have done that, but that is more than this blog!

The great news is that the Environment Agency now have 2 full-time staff to deliver basic rules in Herefordshire. Over 100 farmers had warning letters last year, so it looks like we might just get the input that is so important. More problematic is that some high-risk farmers are shifting their operations to Wales, where there is higher rain fall, more slopes, and little regulation – you can imagine it! We need to think twice before buying Welsh potatoes.

Home working has been a challenge. Without the buzz, chatter and brainstorming of the office, it is at times difficult to keep up with everything. Working in two countries is good, though as we move to a new regulatory world it is proving somewhat challenging. Wales is fiercely independent and adverse to copying anything from the ‘other place’, even if it is quite good. Natural Resources Wales are currently in a process trumping performance stage, unable to provide external funding, or pull up the bad farmers.

It is all fun and games, and we go on. Making sure river restoration happens independent of government is critical if we are to achieve regeneration at scale. We are optimistic that many of the private sector options we’ve piloted can work, especially developing ecosystem service markets and working with the environmental, social, and governance responsibilities of companies is where it is at right now.

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