England, 2020. Every river and lake is polluted beyond legal limits. None are free from toxic chemicals from industries past and present. Water companies dump untold volumes of raw human sewage into them, while agricultural fertilizers and pesticides seep insidiously into rivers, accompanied by runoff of slurry.
Meanwhile, runoff from cities and roads carries dangerous substances such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and lead in our waterways. And sneaky old landfills, mines and industrial sites – thankfully forgotten – quietly leave their long-banned substances in streams and groundwater.
And that’s just what we know. Nanomaterials, microplastics and pharmaceuticals also cross our rivers, with a multitude of unknown consequences.
If you think I sound a little paranoid, you would be right. But also wrong. The latest round of river health assessments conducted by the Environment Agency and released last week by the government laid bare the precarious state of our water bodies and, as recognized by the Environment Minister Rebecca Pow, that made the reading “uncomfortable”.
Assessments have shown that all rivers and lakes in England are polluted beyond legal limits in accordance with EU law, which requires countries to report on their ecological and chemical status.
Embarrassingly for the Environment Agency, there has been no improvement in the ecological health of water bodies since they were last surveyed, in 2016, when only 14% of rivers have reached the level. They have been declining for years – in 2014, the proportion of rivers in good condition was set at 17%, but it fell to 15% in 2015, and then to 14% in 2016, where it remained.
Assessments were done annually until someone decided it would be best if the frequency was changed to once every three years. No prizes for guessing why this might be.
But perhaps the most shocking aspect of the results is that all rivers failed on their chemical status. In 2016, 97% were classified in good chemical health, up from 0% last year. The agency explained that it’s just because they have better ways of identifying a wider range of chemicals this time around, as if that might provide some comfort.
Some chemicals are worryingly described by the agency as “ubiquitous”. These included flame retardants – probably crouching on your couch – which bioaccumulate and have been found in large predators such as gulls and seals. In humans, some of these have been linked to effects on the thyroid system, with potential endocrine disrupting properties, not to mention reproductive and neurodevelopmental toxicity.
Then there is PFOS, from a family of synthetic substances known as âforever chemicalsâ because they just don’t give up. PFOS has been used for its non-stick properties in consumer and industrial products and in fire fighting foam. It was bound thyroid disease, increased cholesterol, low birth rate, reduced response to vaccines, liver damage, and kidney and testicular cancer.
Mercury is another ubiquitous chemical, but I don’t think it needs much introduction. Other substances causing particular problems to our rivers and regulators include the insecticide cypermethrin and PCBs, which have been used as components in electrical and hydraulic equipment as well as in lubricants.
So it’s no surprise that Environment Agency chief executive James Bevan has said he’d like to see existing water quality rules have been changed in a way that would see more rivers classified as healthy, claiming that the current configuration minimizes any improvements to water bodies. The green groups do not agree.
For now, the rules are safe. EU environmental law has largely been transferred to UK law, so no changes will be made in the short term. But once the Brexit transition period is over, the Environment Secretary will have the power to change the green rules, if he gets Parliament’s approval to do so.
Even so, the Defra may want to get their house in order before they start playing with regulation. It has cut the budget of the Environment Agency, which is perhaps why agency officials have repeatedly told me that its river sampling regime is “”useless, “Unscientific” and a “waste of money,” begging the question: how robust are assessments anyway? Could the real picture be even worse?
One person who’s had more than he can take is the former Undertones leader, longtime fisherman and now river activist Feargal Sharkey, who plans to launch a a judicial review against Defra and the Environment Agency, which he describes as a “hotbed of mediocrity” for its management of waterways.
None of the above makes reading enjoyable for anyone who’s spent the summer heat waves splashing around in the local river, but it’s not that bad. I’ve heard that stand-up paddleboards have great resale value.