Rivers in ‘desperate’ state, campaigners warn as they urge public to act

The Rivers Trust released a report that allows people to check the status of their local river – and want the public to put pressure on politicians.

Rivers in the UK and Ireland are in a ‘desperate condition’, campaigners have warned
View of River Severn with winter trees on the banks Rivers in the UK and Ireland are in a ‘desperate condition’, campaigners have warned (Alamy Stock Photo)

Rivers are in a “desperate condition”, campaigners have warned as they release a report that lets the public examine the state of the UK and Ireland’s waterways.

The Rivers Trust’s online report, based on official data, highlights that no stretches of river in England are classed as in good or high condition overall, with pollution from sources including agriculture, the water industry and road runoff.

Nearly a quarter (23%) are classed as in poor or bad overall condition, an assessment based on the combination of their chemical pollution and “ecological” state, based on the health of aquatic plants, fish and insects.

All English rivers are failing on chemical health and just 15% are in a good ecological state, the report warns.

In Northern Ireland, no stretches of river are in good overall health, while just two achieved high ecological status and only 31% are in good ecological condition.

Some 44% of river stretches in Wales achieved at least good status overall and 94% had good status when it came to chemical pollutants – but the report warned there were concerns about how monitoring was carried out in the country.

In Scotland, 57% of river stretches are assessed as being in good or better condition – an improvement in overall status for 23 river stretches compared to in 2020.

The report also covers Ireland, and shows that half of all river stretches achieved high or good ecological status while 17% were in poor or bad ecological health, with 94% not assessed for chemical pollutants.

The report draws on data gathered under the Water Framework Directive in 2022 and additional datasets for some areas.

Mr Lloyd said a healthy river should be teeming with life, with aquatic insects and birds, wildflowers on its banks and varied habitats
The river Cherwell in Oxford during the coronavirus lockdown (Steve Parsons/PA) Mr Lloyd said a healthy river should be teeming with life, with aquatic insects and birds, wildflowers on its banks and varied habitats (Steve Parsons/PA)

The Rivers Trust chief executive Mark Lloyd warned the findings were “dispiritingly similar” to the first such study the organisation released three years ago for England, using previous data from 2019.

“We haven’t seen any dramatic improvements, and all the same problems are there,” he said.

“For all the announcements, initiatives, press releases, changes of ministers and everything, we haven’t seen any shifting of the needle on the dial on a measure of health, which is showing our rivers are in a desperate condition.”

He said there had been some improvements at a local scale where organisations had managed to carry out projects to reduce pollution and improve habitat, but added that “on a strategic level our water system is not delivering healthy rivers”.

The Rivers Trust wants members of the public to use the report to examine how their local waterways are faring and put pressure on local councils and MPs to take action to improve their rivers.

Mr Lloyd said there needed to be more investment in monitoring to provide a better understanding of the sources of pollution and stronger regulation which holds polluters to account.

And there should be a systemic approach to managing the water system and environment, bringing different funding streams together to deliver on multiple fronts, he said.

He warned: “There’s a lot of money being spent around water and the environment but it’s being spent incredibly badly.”

He described to the PA news agency how a healthy river should be teeming with life, from aquatic insects to birds, wildflowers on the river banks and varied habitats including riffles and pools.

“The water would be clear, and people could swim with confidence or paddle, there would be lots more anglers about and more fish to catch,” while there would be low flood risk and flowing water.

Instead, he warned, many rivers were not flowing at all in summer months, while his local river “looked like milk chocolate” in recent days because of the volume of soil washing off fields in the heavy rain.

Polluted rivers might have sewage fungus and sanitary waste, green algal blooms and heavily modified banks, he said, but warned that it was often hard to tell what was going on in the water, as even a quite polluted waterway can look quite pretty.

“This report gives citizens the ability to kind of look under that veneer of prettiness and find out what’s what’s really going on with the health inside,” he said.