“Fatbergs as big as blue whales”: How the UK’s sewage-choked rivers are putting salmon at risk

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Wild salmon are “at risk” or “probably at risk” in 39 of the 42 rivers they populate in England.

English rivers are a dangerous “chemical cocktail” of sewage, farm waste and plastics after decades of underfunding water infrastructure and pollution monitoring, according to a parliamentary inquiry.

The House of Commons Environmental Select Committee report published on Thursday blames water companies, farmers, regulators and the government for making English rivers some of the most polluted in Europe. Water company privatization may have led to dividends being prioritized over investment, while regulator Ofwat has sought to minimize consumer bills over the need to renew drains and sewers, it said.

Water companies routinely dump untreated sewage into English rivers, while intensive farming is polluting waterways with anything from phosphorus and nitrates to fecal bacteria and pathogens, reports Bloomberg.

No river in England received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination. Wild salmon are “at risk” or “probably at risk” in 39 of the 42 rivers they populate. Just one stretch of water was designated safe for bathing — compared with 420 in France — and even in that case, the committee heard testimony of people becoming ill after swimming.

Multiple failures
“Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality,” said the Committee Chairman Philip Dunne. “For too long, the government, regulators and the water industry have allowed a Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure.”

The report found sewage discharges by water companies breached permits that only allow them in exceptional circumstances. It called for an urgent review of the industry’s self-monitoring of sewage dumping. Sewage spills from overflows reported to the Environment Agency surged 27 per cent to more than 403,000 in 2020, although unofficial scientific analysis suggests the number could be much higher, the report said.

Last July, Southern Water was fined a record £90 million after pleading guilty to thousands of illegal sewage discharges.

Choking waterways
The lawmakers said the approval of poultry farms in areas, such as the Wye Valley, is leading to excessive levels of phosphorous pollution, choking waterways with algal blooms and suffocating fish. They said nutrient budgets must guide approvals across different catchment areas, and where these are exceeded, pollution must be reduced.

Just 14 per cent of England’s rivers can claim to have good ecological status, far short of the government’s legal target of 100 per cent by 2017. In its evidence, the group Wildlife and Countryside Link said the water quality is the worst in Europe.

Consumers could also do more to protect rivers. The report details “wet wipe reefs” and “fatbergs as big as blue whales,” which costs about £100 million a year to remove from drainage systems.