The wa­ter pres­sure’s ris­ing

The Gov­ern­ment must force wa­ter com­pa­nies to find al­ter­na­tive sources and give farm­ers in­cen­tives to pro­tect rivers

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Paul Knight is chief ex­ec­u­tive of Salmon & Trout Con­ser­va­tion UK (

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

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