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Environment

Why England’s rivers are so polluted and will be for years to come

Wild swimming has exploded in popularity in recent years – but your local river might not be as clean as you think.

England’s lakes, rivers and streams have some of the worst-quality water in Europe thanks to the combined impact of the climate crisis, agricultural runoff and sewage discharges.

In recent years, water companies have come under fire for revelations about thousands of discharges of raw sewage into England’s rivers, sometimes carried out illegally.

The revelations have emerged as “wild swimming” has grown in popularity, with many swimmers shocked at the degraded state of their local river.

Last week, bosses from England’s largest private water suppliers claimed they don’t have the technology to monitor the amount of raw sewage being dumped into rivers and lack the “investment” to stop spills by 2030. 

The executives were grilled as part of an inquiry into water quality in rivers following recent revelations that just 14 per cent of rivers in England have “good” ecological status. 

Why is sewage being dumped into rivers?

Sewage discharges into rivers are permitted by the Environment Agency following spells of “extreme” weather to ease pressures on water infrastructure.

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These pressures are worsened by blockages in the system from non-biodegradable items like wet wipes. 

The sewage is discharged out of storm overflow pipes to avoid the material backing up into people’s homes via toilets or sinks. 

Figures showing that sewage was dumped into rivers 400,000 times in 2020 alone has led campaigners to question the frequency of spills, while evidence suggests that illegal discharges are up to 10 times higher than official data shows. 

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How can I find out how much sewage is in my river?

In the evidence session on Wednesday, October 13, some water executives claimed they don’t yet have the technology to monitor the volume of sewage spills into rivers.

Most companies only have tools known as “event duration monitors” which measure the start and end times of spills. 

In an effort to aid transparency over sewage spills into rivers, the Rivers Trust has created a map using data from these event duration monitors which shows where and for how long sewage was dumped into your local river during 2020. 

It also included data on storm overflow pipes which don’t currently have event duration monitors. For these areas, the length of time over which sewage was discharged is currently unknown. 

You can type in your postcode or simply zoom into the map to see the location of spills near you. 

Is it safe to swim in my river if sewage has been discharged there?

The Rivers Trust experts recommend avoiding entering water downstream of overflow pipes, where sewage has entered the river.

They advise particular caution after extreme rainy weather, as this is when discharges are much more likely to happen. 

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What can I do about the sewage in my river? 

If you are concerned about the level of sewage pollution in your river, you can join a local river campaign group or sign up to your local Rivers Trust group to help monitor and improve water quality.

You could also consider writing to your MP about the issue or even starting your own local campaign group if none currently exists. 

In Ilkley, a local campaign group secured the UK’s first bathing status award for a river, meaning the Environment Agency will be obliged to test the water more regularly and award it a rating of “excellent”, “good”, “sufficient” or “poor”.

The campaigners hope the ratings system will raise public awareness of the poor quality of river water in the UK. 

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