Last reviewed 14 January 2022

A ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic is polluting the waters of many of the country’s rivers, committee finds.

A report published by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) says underinvestment, poor governance and multiple failures in monitoring and enforcement are causing serious harm to marine ecosystems and increasing risk to human health. Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination and only 14% of English rivers meet good ecological status,

The build-up of excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen from animal waste and sewage is reducing oxygen levels in rivers and in severe cases is causing fish kills. Along with the stresses of plastic and synthetic chemical pollution and climate change this is creating multiple pressures and undermining the health and resilience of key ecosystems, the report finds.

The committee blames a lack of political will to improve water quality, adding that ‘successive governments, water companies and regulators seemingly turning a blind eye to antiquated practices of dumping sewage and other pollutants in rivers’.

EAC chair, Conservative MP, Philip Dunne MP, described rivers as “the arteries of nature and must be protected”.

“Today, we are calling for these relevant bodies to come together and develop a system fit for the future. Monitoring regimes need to be reviewed, enforcement needs to be ramped up, and even public awareness needs boosting on what can and cannot be poured down drains or flushed down the toilet. For too long, the government, regulators and the water industry have allowed a Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure," he said.

The report says budget cuts to the Environment Agency (EA) have hampered the ability to detect pollution incidents from the water industry or farming, and river quality monitoring does not routinely identify microplastics, persistent chemical pollutants or pathogens flowing through rivers. The EA Chair recently wrote to Environment Secretary warning that funding cuts meant tackling England’s pollution incidents is “significantly reduced”.

Responding to the report’s findings, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said the government is; “…going further and faster than any other government to protect and enhance the health of our rivers and seas”

“We won’t hesitate to take enforcement action against water companies failing to reduce pollution”, she added.

EAC is calling for an urgent ‘step change’ in regulatory action, water company investment, and cross-catchment collaboration with farmers and drainage authorities to restore rivers to good ecological health, protect biodiversity and adapt to a changing climate.