All anglers understand instinctively that good water quality underpins every aspect of our rivers’ health. That’s why, a couple of weeks ago, renowned international competition fly-fisher (and regular Fishtec customer) Terry Bromwell took matters into his own hands…
He’d heard reports that a sewage works in south Wales was pumping out slugs of raw sewage into the River Rhondda, and he wanted to investigate these rumours for himself.
Arriving at the waterside, he was disgusted to see the river below the treatment works running milky white with toilet paper and other sanitary products. Lack of recent rain meant that the river’s natural level was low, and he filmed the effluent pumping forcefully out of the treatment works for many minutes before the flow finally abated.
According to his sources, this was happening several times every day, with thousands of gallons pouring into the unfortunate little river each time.
At the time of writing, the official response to Terry’s viral video is still uncertain, but watching something like this is horrifying even if you haven’t spent much of your angling life in the shadow of a notorious sewage treatment works (like I have).
UPDATE: Welsh Water finally took notice of Terry’s video and investigated the pollution. They are now working to fix the issue.
Back to the bad old days?
Of course, this begs the question: after years of improvement thanks to privatisation of the water industry and European water quality directives, is the water quality in our rivers actually getting worse again?
Frustratingly, the answer to that question rather depends who you ask, how ‘worse’ is measured, and even which set of statistics you’re looking at. For instance, the recent drop from 29 per cent of England’s rivers enjoying good health in 2014, to just 17 per cent in 2015, and 14 per cent in 2016, can be explained by a new, tighter ‘one out, all out’ measurement regime.
But if you measure water quality in dead fish and bugs, then yes, it seems clear that many rivers are suffering. And it’s also clear that Terry’s home country of Wales has been hit by more than its fair share of aquatic catastrophes in recent months:
- In March 2016, a pollution incident on the Llynfi Dulas (a tributary of the Usk) killed at least 2,000 fish over 5km of river.
- In December 2016, a slurry leak near Tregaron led to the deaths of 1,000 fish on the upper Teifi.
- A few weeks later, another slurry spill was reported from a tributary of the Towy near Carmarthen.
- In June 2017 it was the Teifi’s turn again, when a slug of liquid waste escaped from an anaerobic digester at Lampeter.
A nationwide problem
Yet this uplift in agricultural pollution isn’t just a Welsh problem: Wye & Usk Foundation Director Simon Evans has told me that he’s deeply worried by high-nutrient runoff from free-range chicken farms in the Lugg and Arrow catchments.
Meanwhile, having been sounding the alarm about intensive dairy units in the Eden valley for years, England fly-fishing team coach Jeremy Lucas recently captured unmistakeable photo evidence of a slurry trailer dragging away from the River Eden after discharging unknown quantities of waste into the waters of this Special Site of Scientific Interest.
And it wasn’t long ago that environmental campaigner George Monbiot discovered, completely by chance, a constant stream of liquid manure running into the little River Culm in Devon.
To be fair, for every farmer or utility company employee who doesn’t care or can’t afford to implement best-practice pollution management, there are probably a dozen who are passionate about protecting the environment.
But this new report from WWF, which reveals that more than half of the sewage overflow sites in England and Wales are discharging into our rivers at least once a month (and 14% once a week!) gives us a real sense of the scale of the problem.
Time for us to act
Now, at a time when the impacts of the Brexit referendum make wide-ranging deregulation look likely, it’s time for all anglers to follow the example of the watchful fishermen I’ve mentioned above, and become even more vigilant in our role as guardians of our rivers.
We’re out there in all weathers, we know when something’s not quite right, and as Terry has recently shown us, we’ve got all the power of social media right here at our fingertips if the proper authorities don’t seem to be taking problems seriously enough.
Recent evidence suggests that the courts are now prepared to fine offenders much more heavily – for example, Thames Water was recently handed a record £20 million penalty for repeatedly polluting the Thames.
Better still, recent changes mean that compensation money can now be channelled into repairing environmental damage, via enforcement undertakings, instead of sending it straight to the coffers of the Treasury. And even when long court cases aren’t successful, public pressure can force polluters to invest in improvements like Welsh Water’s new sewage treatment improvements at Llyn Padarn.
How can we help?
So how can we all get personally involved in spotting – and stopping – pollution problems? Here’s a list of ideas I’ve been developing…
Support angling passport schemes
It’s obvious once you know about it, but one of the reasons for setting up these schemes was to incentivise farmers to look after the vital headwaters of many major rivers. If landowners see how much we value these small streams, they’ll look after them better, which benefits everybody in the long term… and of course we can help them to spot potential problems too.
Go fishing in the rain
River restoration professionals always jump at the chance to explore their catchments in the most horrible conditions – taking so-called ‘wet weather walks’ to see where the water really goes when it falls out of the sky, and what it looks like when it reaches the river. With runoff from roads, farmyards, badly-ploughed fields and more, this can sometimes be a real eye-opener.
Follow your nose
If something doesn’t smell right, it’s probably wrong, and you’ll often sniff out pollution before you see it. Another sign of water quality problems is ‘sewage fungus’ – a grey, gelatinous or feathery mass of bacteria which grows in the presence of very high nutrient levels like those provided by slurry or sewage.
Look out for misconnections
On streams and rivers everywhere, many insidious pollution problems are caused by toilets, sinks and washing machines being wrongly plumbed into rainwater pipes instead of foul sewers. If there’s a nasty smell, or if you can see milky discharges, toilet paper or sanitary products in your river, chances are there’s a misconnection somewhere nearby. But on the upside, the local water company should be keen to get it fixed (and it’s illegal for homeowners to refuse).
Get trained as a riverfly monitor
Once a month, a 3-minute kick sample can tell you almost everything you need to know about the health of your local river. Different species of aquatic invertebrates are differently sensitive to pollution, and repeated sampling can locate the source and even provide evidence for a prosecution. Find out more from the Riverfly Partnership website.
Join a local pollution monitoring programme
As well as riverfly monitoring, more and more rivers trusts are setting up networks of local volunteers to spot pollution and help to deal with incidents. Some water companies are recognising the benefits of citizen science too: for example, Thames Water is working in partnership with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) to run ‘outfall safaris’ and identify problem areas for their surface outfall remediation programme. They’ve also launched a rapid response unit which aims to get to the site of any reported pollutions within an hour.
Make that call!
Wherever you live and fish, keep one or both of these pollution hotline numbers in your phone, and don’t think twice about calling if you spot a pollution problem:
England, Scotland and Northern Ireland: 0800 80 70 60
Wales: 0300 065 3000
It’s far better to be safe than sorry, and every report helps to build up a picture of what’s going on. Your vigilance really can make a difference.
And if all else fails… be like Terry, and put the power of social media to work for you too.
About the author
Theo Pike is a freelance environmental, fishing and marketing writer. He’s also Chair of Trustees of the South East Rivers Trust, and founding editor of urbantrout.net, a website and eco-brand dedicated to the urban fly fishing and river restoration movements. His first book, Trout in Dirty Places, was published by Merlin Unwin Books in 2012, and his manual on controlling invasive non-native species, The Pocket Guide to Balsam Bashing appeared in 2014.