The water pressure’s rising
The Government must force water companies to find alternative sources and give farmers incentives to protect rivers
Paul Knight argues that water companies must find alternative sources and farmers be given incentives to protect rivers
ALL species rely on water for their existence, but human pressure is having a devastating impact on the health of its main conduit. Some 85% of English rivers presently fail the basic test of good ecological status.
Growing concern by river and fishery managers about the state of the water environment led Salmon & Trout Conservation UK (S&TC) to start the ground-breaking National Riverfly Census; the results are now in from 2016 and confirm that water quality in many English and Welsh rivers is in a parlous state. We may have cleaned up the heavy industrial pollution of the past, but rivers now suffer from more wide-ranging and insidious issues that are equally damaging.
Water insects are great indicators of water quality. They live for months, sometimes years, in the water in their nymph stages and are thus susceptible to pollutants; different species have different tolerances that make their presence or absence revealing.
The census samples insects from some 20 English and Welsh rivers and these are analysed by professional entomologists at Aquascience Ltd for tolerance or intolerance to sediment, organic pollution, excessive nutrients and water flow. The results are put through a special computer programme and a biometric fingerprint is obtained for each river.
Results show that sediment and excess phosphate in particular are having a disastrous impact on invertebrate communities in certain reaches of rivers, causing a loss of fly-life species abundance and major disruption to the delicate balance of the aquatic food chain. Fish, mammals and bird populations are suffering.
A major source of sediment and phosphate is modern agricultural production, which allows soil, nutrients and slurry to leach into watercourses. Road run-off, inadequately treated sewage and septic tanks increase the damage and water abstraction denudes many rivers of their natural flow, leading to less dilution.
‘Water is far too valuable a commodity to be used only once
What can we do about it, especially as Brexit looms, presenting both opportunities and challenges? We will lose the protection of EU environmental legislation, but, exiting the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) provides a chance to reform agricultural subsidies here. Land managers could be rewarded for protecting river systems, rather than just receiving the lump sum per hectare with environmental conditions that have largely been ineffective under CAP.
S&TC prefers the idea of finding solutions that benefit farmers and therefore provide incentives. The NFU reports that more farmers are using minimum or zero tillage, which has many all-round benefits, rather than ploughing (Agromenes, July 5). Lighter machinery cuts down both capital investment and running costs, improving the profitability of arable farming.
In return, soil is better stabilised and natural processes, such as earthworm activity, are encouraged, overcoming compaction and aiding water retention. This naturally limits water runoff in heavy rainfall and keeps soil where it should be—in the field, rather than in rivers.
Healthy rivers also have benefits for communities. Since privatisation, water companies have invested vast sums of money on upgrading infrastructure that has cleaned some once industrialised urban rivers, although there is still investment required for rural sewage treatment, tackling leakage and educating customers to improve demand management.
If we can also reduce inputs such as sediment and phosphorous, then water companies won’t need phosphate strippers at sewage works and processing for consumer supply should be cheaper, cutting household water bills.
However, to be really efficient, and to protect water life properly, we need the Government to adopt a new abstraction policy that forces companies to find sources of water that don’t put so much pressure on the environment. That means retaining more rainfall, including the building of new reservoirs, as well as being prepared to reuse water—it’s far too valuable a commodity to be used only once and companies already have the technology to clean water effectively for reuse.
All we need now is the commitment from politicians to seize these opportunities and provide a framework in which land and water managers can deliver an environment that we’d be proud to hand to future generations.
(left) and the sparkling example of the Camel in Cornwall (right)
Murky waters: the polluted riverbed of the Wensum in Norfolk