Politics and promises: what’s killing the Wye?
Throughout this week, we’ve brought you the results of a major ITV investigation into the pollution crisis on the River Wye. Wastewater is dumped into the river’s catchment area on an “industrial scale” – while poultry producers have admitted they need to mitigate their impact on the amount of phosphates entering the water.
So what are the officials doing?
The lack of action to tackle pollution problems in the River Wye – whether perceived or real – has long been a frustration for activists fighting to save it.
Wild swimmers, anglers and boaters who use the river throughout its 155-mile course say they have seen plant, insect, fish and bird life deteriorate to the point, in places, of get lost completely.
And activists have been trying to raise awareness and incite action for years.
Part of the problem, historically, has been the route taken by the river – it begins in the mountains of central Wales and crosses Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, before briefly returning to Wales and then heading towards the sea at the Severn estuary. In fact, for several kilometers, the river itself actually forms the border between England and Wales.
And with different policies, different politicians, and different environmental agencies responsible on either side of that line, figuring out who is responsible for the pollution entering the water, and to what extent, has not been – to say the least – not easy.
“It’s a nightmare,” a source told me, who asked to remain anonymous.
“There are some challenges,” others openly admit.
The Environment Agency has previously recognized that the two main sources of pollution are agriculture – which contributes around 60% – and outflows from combined storm overflows, which discharge raw and untreated sewage into rivers. , streams and the sea at times when the system is in danger. flood.
But tracing back to specific people, companies or industries can be problematic.
“The problem we’ve had with outreach is we’ve had agencies on both sides of the river,” North Herefordshire MP Bill Wiggin said.
“This is a cross-border issue, and we have different priorities for these agencies – as well as maybe not enough oversight.”
Ann Weedy, chief operating officer of Natural Resources Wales, said the challenges facing the Wye were “many and varied” – such as different phosphate targets in different areas and varying regulatory policies.
But, she insisted, the agency “works closely” with its counterparts in Natural England – which is overseen by the Department for the Environment, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (Defra) – and l ‘Environment Agency.
“We all have a role to play – government agencies, farmers, land managers, businesses, policymakers and households – in considering how we live and the impact it has on the Wye watershed,” he said. she declared.
“It means rethinking the way we manage nutrients in farmland, the way we deal with wastewater and the way we live our daily lives as well as how we can establish practical nature-based solutions such as river restoration programs that can both improve water quality and habitat, but also reduce nutrient inputs.
But perhaps a sign of the kind of difficulties the activists faced, neither the Environment Agency nor Defra would speak to ITV in connection with this investigation.
Today, politicians themselves are joining the calls for a more concerted approach.
“I really want to celebrate all the activists who worked so hard to get this on the public agenda. It’s the number one problem in my inbox, it’s the number one thing I’ve worked on for the past two years, ”said Fay Jones, MP for Brecon & Radnorshire.
“And my fingers crossed I think we’re making progress, but it’s really up to the two governments, Wales and Westminster, to work together on this.”
She and Mr Wiggin are among a group of four MPs who have signed a formal offer of inclusion in the spending review, due to be released on October 27, alongside Forest of Dean MP Mark Harper.
Led by Hereford and South Herefordshire MP Jesse Norman, the bid is asking for £ 15million to help fund a dedicated pollution control task force along the Wye – and they want to fund it from the fines imposed on water companies that have broken the rules on the amount of sewage they discharge into open water.
‘Because it involves a lot of different people – it involves parts of the Welsh government, parts of the UK government, various agencies – the Environment Agency, Natural England, [Natural Resources] Wales and so on – it’s a real plan that we need here, ”said Harper.
“This is why we have both made the demand for government spending, but we have also suggested to the government how we can fund it, and effectively use some of the bad behavior of the water companies where they are doomed to a fine, for paying some of the good work to clean up our rivers.
Mr Norman added: “We are fining companies for the amount of wastewater they discharge – which is only part of the problem, but it is a problem that we have got under control, and they have already paid substantial fines.
“Some of this money could be used for a national cleanup. And we’re going to need something like that to prop up the Wye – and that means we don’t necessarily have to think about tax revenue to do it.
He said he had “hopes” for success because the offer was costed – although the Treasury declined to comment until the review was officially published.
Meanwhile, members of the House of Commons are voting on the government’s new environmental bill.
A debate took place on Wednesday, in which a number of amendments made by the House of Lords – including one that would have imposed a legal obligation on water companies to reduce the discharge of sewage into rivers – were rejected.
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow, who is also a Member of Parliament for Taunton and Deane, argued it was not necessary due to other projects the government had underway.
She told the House of Commons that once it comes into force, the bill will fully address the problem of poor water quality.
“In our guidance document which was released in August 2020, we set out the targets for the targets we envision for water, and these include reducing pollution from agriculture, wastewater, abandoned metal mines and reduced water demand. All of these areas are really important to the areas we are talking about.
But critics say this kind of change makes the new legislation “toothless.”
Feargal Sharkey, former frontman of rock group The Undertones, is an avid angler and vocal anti-pollution activist.
“We’re going to end up with even more testing,” he said.
“We already know that there isn’t a single river in the country that meets good overall environmental health, so why do we need more testing?
“We all know these rivers are depleted, they’ve been mistreated, and the government’s response to that has effectively – since we’re heading into Halloween – they’re just trying to put on another face mask, and that. is nothing more than all the stuff and no treats
“The truth is, ministers in Cardiff and Whitehall need to take joint responsibility for this and start crafting a real, genuine plan that will be delivered on a real schedule, with real funding, with real boots on the ground. land to get there. “
There are still a number of amendments to be debated on the bill – with the next debate scheduled for October 26 – but ministers insist that when it comes into force it will lead to improvements.
And with rock stars, politicians on both sides of the border, and riverine communities themselves all striving for the same outcome – there is certainly the energy behind it.
“The river is a living thing in its own right and we must act with respect towards it and we must do so on both sides of the border,” said Julie James, Minister for Climate Change in the Welsh Assembly.
“And I think that’s pretty much a founding principle for it’s not that. That’s climate change, it’s about treating our planet a lot more kindly, and treating each other a lot more kindly actually, so we have to get it right. “
But with the bill yet to be passed and spending scrutiny uncertain, the question is whether it will arrive in time to stop the deterioration of the River Wye.