Who's Polluting Our Water? - ITV Tonight

Many of us have been out and about enjoying our rivers and lakes in the recent bout of warm weather. But how clean are they? Joe Crowley has been investigating who and what is polluting our water. 

Rivers provide a vital ecosystem in our countryside. Worryingly, ITV Tonight has learnt that our beautiful waterways might not be as healthy as you might think.

Tonight travels to the Peak District where local canoeists are clearing up the River Derwent. One of the volunteers, Pete, tells us:

It’s an endless task, but for every bag of rubbish we remove from the river is one less that heads towards the sea. On an average river cleaning during the day we probably get 70 or 80 bag fulls.- Pete Astles, Paddle Peak

It’s not just litter being dumped in the Derwent however. Water companies are allowed to discharge untreated sewage into rivers and the sea but they need a permit and it has to be in exceptional circumstances. However, since 2010 the privatised companies have been allowed to self-monitor and report how often they are dumping untreated sewage. Pete takes us to a CSO (a combined sewage outlet) where the ground is littered with sanitary products such as wet wipes.

Severn Trent  - the water company that discharges into the River Derwent- told Tonight they werealready working hard to use combined sewage overflows less and were “investing £100m a year to go even further in improving rivers.” They said they’d also “recruited a team of River Rangers to help educate communities and monitor rivers”.

Feargal Sharkey, the singer turned river-campaigner, is highly critical of water companies

“There is not a single river in England that isn't currently listed as being a good overall environmental health. And one of the biggest sources of that pollution is the water industry. Over the last two years alone, they've spent almost 6 million hours dumping sewage into our rivers.’ -Feargal Sharkey

UK Water, who speak on behalf of all the water companies, told the programme: 

“Water companies agree there is an urgent need for action to tackle the harm caused to the environment by spills from storm overflows and wastewater treatment works. They are investing over £3bn to improve overflows as part of a wider national programme to improve the environment between 2020 and 2025.”

They said they are also calling for the government, regulators, water companies, agriculture and other sectors to come together as soon as possible to deliver a national plan to transform our rivers and waterways.

But it’s not just our rivers suffering. In the Lake District, Lake Windermere may look idyllic but it has algae blooms on the surface of the water. These can be toxic to humans and animals and are caused by an excess of nutrients in the water. They can occur naturally…  but it seems that’s not the whole story on Lake Windermere at the moment:

We know that the sewage network services some of the lake. And because it's a rural catchment, we also have septic tanks and as well it's a farmed catchment. So we have those three sources which each contribute about a third of the nutrients into the lake. - Louise Lavictoire,The Freshwater Biological Association

In partnership with Lancaster University, volunteers have taken a hundred water samples in one day to try to get a picture of the pollution sources in and around the lake and the results of the survey are expected to be published this Autumn.

United Utilities -the water company who service the Windermere area- told Tonight they’d reduced the phosphorus in their final effluence by tenfold and increased the capacity of their sewer network leading to a significant reduction in the frequency of spills from the storm overflow at Windermere. They said their wastewater systems around Windermere operate to the highest possible standards following record levels of investment and they were working with other agencies to prioritise action to further improve water quality.

The Environment Agency said they were “taking robust action to tackle pollution in our lakes and rivers and improve the operational performance of water companies”. They also said they are insisting monitors are added to all storm overflows and the data published; and they are investigating whether water companies are complying with sewage treatment permits. 

Useful links: 

The Big Windermere Survey

Farming rules for water - UK Gov