Rivers in crisis: Hundreds of anglers join pollution project exposing level of toxic chemicals

ITV News Central's Environment Correspondent Charlotte Cross reports on the new figures which show the scale of pollution in rivers across Britain.

Shocking new figures reveal the scale of the river pollution crisis plaguing Britain’s rivers, as ‘people power’ drives forward campaigns for action to tackle the issue.

One year on from the launch of a pilot scheme arming anglers along the River Severn in Worcestershire with kits to test for toxic chemicals, hundreds of volunteers up and down the country have now signed up to take regular samples from their local rivers.

They’ve found 33% of water tested exceeds the upper safe limit for phosphates, and 41% exceed the upper limit for nitrates.

Kristian Kent, from the Angling Trust, told ITV News Central: “What we’re seeing is really worrying. Very high levels of phosphates and nitrates, nutrient levels which are going to contribute to algael blooms, and those are really going to affect fish populations, wildlife and invertebrates along our rivers.

“Our concern is that the government really don’t seem to have any urgency to get this sorted. They keep kicking the can down the road, deadlines for 27 years in the future, when this is a problem that is affecting our rivers now, and we need solutions that are going to fix this problem now.”

33% of water tested exceeds the upper safe limit for phosphates Credit: ITV News Central

The pilot scheme for the Water Quality Monitoring Network was launched on the River Severn in May 2022, thanks to lobbying from the head of the Worcester Angling Society, Glyn Marshall.

He bought his own testing kit after seeing an ITV News Central investigation the previous year into river pollution across the Midlands, and began taking regular samples himself.

What he found, he said, was horrifying.

“I’m just devastated,” he said.

“I just wanted to save this river because I care about the river.

“Since I started, things have got worse. The river’s health is going downhill. Phosphate levels are off the scale, and now I’m testing for ammonia, and the ammonia levels are too high.

“And I think if we carry on the river will slowly deteriorate. There’ll be a tipping point, and we won’t be able to recover it.”

Now, he’s not alone.

A total of 183 angling clubs have signed up, involving 428 volunteers monitoring 121 rivers across the country.

To date, they’ve collected and tested more than 1,500 samples.

33% exceed safe phosphate levels

41% exceed safe nitrate levels

The latest Environment Agency figures show this pollution coming from three primary sources: 18% from urban run-off, such as engine oil; 40% from agriculture, such as fertiliser or dung being washed in from fields; and 35% from sewage.

Last week, a statement on behalf of the water companies made a public apology for not tackling the issue of sewage releases in the past, and promising to invest £10bn on improvements in the next decade.

But when asked by charity Fish Legal, Severn Trent refused to release details of last year’s maintenance programme, nor details of its monitoring of how its sewage outflows are used, saying it couldn’t due to an ongoing Environment Agency investigation, and that the information could be commercially sensitive.

“It means the situation that we’re in now is that we do not understand how well this particular sewage treatment works is being maintained,” said Penny Game from Fish Legal.

“Water companies need to be entirely transparent about how they operate their waste water treatment works. No ifs, no buts.

“It shouldn’t be that an angling club has to fight tooth and nail to understand what kind of impact a water company is having on the environment.”

She said they were not giving up, and planned to lodge another appeal with the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Severn Trent declined to comment on the information dispute, but claimed in a statement that data showed 84% of the reasons for rivers not achieving good ecological status were down to other sectors.

The pilot scheme for the Water Quality Monitoring Network was launched on the River Severn in May 2022 Credit: ITV News Central

“At Severn Trent we are spending a hundred million pounds a year to make rivers as healthy as they can be.   In just one year, we’ve reduced our impact by a third and we’ll go further and faster to fix things as quickly as we can,” they said.

“While we know we have much more to do, others need to play their part too, and we’re absolutely committed to continuing our work with other sectors, such as agriculture.”

The government’s current target is to see all sewage spills in rivers cleaned up by 2050.

Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey said: “I have been unequivocal on this issue. Water companies need to clean up their act – and they need to cover the costs.

“But the hard truth is that however much we all want to see this fixed immediately, the scale and complexity means there is no way that we can stop pollution overnight. To suggest otherwise is dishonest.

“I am using the full force of my powers to make sure that we stop the damage caused by storm overflows as quickly as possible.”

The Environment Agency said it was “holding the water industry to account on a scale never seen before”, with 58 prosecutions, and securing record fines of over £147 million against water companies.

It said it was also taking action in the agricultural sector, including more than 4,000 farm inspections in the last financial year.

But with pollution still pouring in, the fear is that the action being taken is happening too slowly, and the benefit will come too late.

“Now that anglers are involved, we can see proof of what’s happening before our very eyes,” Glyn said.

“I just hope it’s enough to convince someone that action is needed now.”