Politics and Promises: What's Killing the Wye?

Throughout this week, we have brought you the results of a major ITV investigation into the pollution crisis on the River Wye. Sewage is being dumped in the river catchment 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 those in charge doing about it?

What are politicians doing to help the River Wye?

The lack of action on tackling pollution problems in the River Wye - whether perceived or actual - has long been a frustration for campaigners battling to save it.

Wild swimmers, anglers and boaters who use the river throughout its 155-mile journey say they’ve watched plant, insect, fish and bird life deteriorate to the point of, in places, being lost completely.

And campaigners have been trying to raise awareness, and spur action, for years.

Part of the problem, historically, has been the route the river takes - it begins the mountains of mid-Wales, and travels through Herefordshire and Gloucestershire, before crossing briefly back into Wales and then heading into the sea at the Severn Estuary. In fact, for a number miles the river itself actually forms the border between England and Wales.

And with different politics, different politicians, and different environmental agencies responsible on either side of that line, working out who is responsible for the pollution entering the water, and how much of it, has - to put it mildly - not been easy.

“It’s a nightmare,” one source, who asked not to be named, told me.

“There are certain challenges,” others admit openly.

A storm drain releases sewage into the River Wye.

The Environment Agency has previously acknowledged that the two main sources of pollution are agriculture - which contributes around 60% - and outflow from Combined Storm Overflows, which release raw, untreated sewage into rivers, streams and the sea at times when the system is at risk of flooding.

But tracing that back to specific people, businesses or industries can be problematic.

“The problem we’ve had with awareness is we’ve had agencies on both sides of the river,” says North Herefordshire MP Bill Wiggin. 

“This is a cross-border problem, and we have different priorities for those agencies - as well as perhaps not enough monitoring.”

Ann Weedy, the operations manager for 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 does “work closely” with their counterparts at Natural England - which is overseen by the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) - and the Environment Agency.

“We all have a role to play – public bodies, farmers, land managers, businesses, policy makers and householders – to consider how we live and the impact that has on the Wye catchment,” she said. 

“This means rethinking how we manage nutrients in agricultural land, how we treat wastewater and how we live our daily lives as well as how we can establish practical nature-based solutions such as river restoration programmes that can both improve water quality and habitat but also reduce nutrient inputs.”

But in perhaps a sign of the kind of difficulties campaigners have faced, however, neither the Environment Agency nor Defra would speak to ITV as part of this investigation.

Now, politicians themselves are joining in calls for a more joined-up approach.

Pollution at various points along the River Wye

“I really do want to celebrate all of the campaigners who have worked so hard to get this right up onto the public agenda. It is the number one issue in my inbox, it’s the number one thing I’ve been working on over the last two years,” said Fay Jones, MP for Brecon & Radnorshire. 

“And fingers crossed I do think we’re making progress, but it really is up to both governments, in Wales and in Westminster, to work together on this.”

She and Mr Wiggin are among a group of four MPs who have signed an official bid for inclusion in the Spending Review, due to be published on October 27, alongside Forest of Dean MP Mark Harper.

Led by Hereford and South Herefordshire MP Jesse Norman, the bid requests £15 million to help fund a working group dedicated to tackling pollution along the Wye - and they want to fund it from fines levied against water companies who have broken the rules on how much sewage they’re releasing into open waters.

“Because it involves of lots of different people - it involves bits of the Welsh government, bits of the UK government, various agencies - the Environment Agency, Natural England, [Natural Resources] Wales and so forth - it’s a real plan needed here,” said Mr Harper. 

“That’s why we’ve made both the spending request for government but we’ve also suggested to government how we can fund it, and use effectively some of the bad behaviour of water companies where they’re fined, to pay for some of the good work on cleaning up our rivers.”

Mr Norman added: “We fine the companies for the amount of sewage they release - which is only part of the problem, but it is one that we have a handle on, and they’ve already paid substantial fines.

“Part of that money could go towards a national clean-up. And we’re going to need something like that in order to support the Wye - and it means we don’t necessarily have to think about tax revenues in order to do that.”

He said he was “hopeful” of success because the bid has been costed - though the Treasury has declined to comment until the Review is officially published.

Campaigners say the River Wye is dying Credit: ITV Central

Meanwhile, MPs in the House of Commons are in the process of voting on the government’s new Environment Bill.

A debate was held on Wednesday, in which a number of amendments made by the House of Lords - including one which would have made it a legal duty for water companies to reduce sewage dumping into rivers - were rejected.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow, who is also the MP for Taunton and Deane, argued it was not necessary due to other projects the government had in the works.

She told the Commons that, once it comes into force, the Bill will tackle the problem of poor water quality in full.

“In our policy paper which was published in August 2020, we set out the objectives for the targets that we were considering for water, and these include reducing pollution from agriculture, from waste water, abandoned metal mines, and reducing water demand. All of these areas are really significant to the areas that we’re talking about.”

But critics say this kind of change makes the new legislation “toothless”.

Feargal Sharkey, former frontman of rock group The Undertones, is a keen angler and vocal anti-pollution campaigner.

Feargal Sharkey is a vocal anti-pollution campaigner.

“We will end up with yet more testing,” he said. 

“We already know 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 exhausted, they’ve been abused, and government’s response to this has effectively - since we’re in the run up to Halloween - they’re simply trying to put on another face mask, and it’s nothing more than all trick and no treat

“The truth is ministers in both Cardiff and Whitehall need to take joint responsibility for this and actually start driving a real, genuine plan which will get delivered to a real timetable, with real funding, with real boots on the ground to make it happen.”

There are still a number of amendments to be debated on the bill - the next debate due 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 riverside communities themselves all rooting for the same outcome - there’s certainly the energy behind it.

“The river is a living, thing in its own right and we need to act respectfully towards it and we need to do that on both sides of the border,” said Julie James, Climate Change Minister at the Welsh Assembly.

“And I think that’s pretty much a founding principle for this isn’t it. This is what climate change is all about, this is about treating our planet much more kindly, and treating each other much more kindly actually, so we need to get this right.”

But with the Bill yet to pass, and the Spending Review uncertain, the question is whether it will happen in time to stop the River Wye deteriorating further.