Shocking insight into scale of crisis facing Britain’s rivers as anglers reveal water testing data

Sewage pumps into the River Severn
Sewage and effluent from a Combined Storm Overflow enter the River Severn at Diglis in Worcester Credit: ITV News Central

The figures paint a grim picture - but, for anyone who’s followed news stories about the sorry state of our polluted rivers in recent years, not a surprising one.

Over the course of a year, anglers have collected samples of water from the River Severn - and have consistently found dangerously high levels of toxic chemicals such as phosphates, nitrates and ammonia.

“I find it demoralizing to see that these are happening to our wildlife, natural environments,” says Andy Jones, from Shrewsbury Town Fisheries.

“It shouldn't be happening. We shouldn't be doing this in today's world.”

He has been fishing the waters in and around Shrewsbury since he was six years old - and says he’s seen first-hand how the health of the Severn has started to suffer.

“We’ve seen the gradual decline in the quality in the river,” he said.

“We get more slime on the river beds and gradually over the years, particularly since say 1989 in the early 1990s, it got a lot worse.”

Some of the testing kits being used by anglers to test river water Credit: ITV News Central

He was among the first to sign up to the network of anglers volunteering as so-called ‘citizen scientists’, as part of a pilot scheme along the Severn run by the Angling Trust last year.

The scheme has proved so popular, growing to 44 volunteers in 19 different clubs and groups across the catchment area.

Together, they have collected 432 samples, finding:

  • 177 (41%) exceeded the upper limit for phosphate

  • 238 (55%) exceeded upper nitrate levels

  • 144 (33%) exceeded both

According to the report, at which ITV News Central was given an exclusive first look, one of the most shocking findings was the pollution levels in tributaries.

This means that instead of clean water washing in from the smaller rivers and streams, some water is heavily polluted before it even reaches the Severn - worsening the situation as the water flows downstream.

The Environment Agency estimates that on average, 18% of river pollution comes from urban run-off; 35% from sewage being released; and 40% from agricultural sources, such as fertiliser running into the water from fields.

Particular hotspots identified by the Angling Trust report were the River Alne in Warwickshire, the Avon in Evesham, and the Leadon in Gloucestershire.

“This is not just one or two places, or isolated incidences - it's endemic throughout the catchment,” Kris Kent, from the Angling Trust, told us.

“I think at one level it's deeply saddening.

“We know there's a problem, we expected to find it. But even so, when you see these figures, it can be quite depressing, especially alongside a lack of action on the part of government and industry to actually fix the issue.”

Glyn Marshall, from the Worcester Angling Society, began testing two years ago Credit: ITV News Central

The Environment Agency, however, denies that it’s being complacent - and said it is working with water companies, as well as carrying out 500 farm inspections this month alone.

Clare Dinnis, area director for the West Midlands, said she “understood the frustration” of people who were concerned about river pollution, but said the issue was treated as one of utmost importance.

“There's no doubt that river water quality is absolutely one of our priority focus - it has been for a long time,” she said.

“It is something that is really important to the environment, and we absolutely recognise the concern and the frustration that's coming from the public about it as well.

“There are multiple different sources that are contributing to that and we are working with all of those sources to to be able to understand how they can mitigate the impact and to take action where we need to.”

She said the Agency was keen to continue working with citizen scientists going forward.

Clare Dinnis, from the Environment Agency, insisted that tackling river pollution was a "priority focus" Credit: ITV News Central

“We do have ‘legal burdens of proof’, as they’re called, that we have to follow where we take any kind of legal action against people, and that’s really difficult as it often involves very specific methods or kit of staff with training to be able to do,” she added.

“But that doesn’t mean the information the citizen scientists are giving us isn’t useful, and isn’t taken into account. It’s a critical part of the story.”

When asked why - when water companies recently apologised for failing to effectively tackle spills in rivers and beaches over recent decades - the Environment Agency had failed to hold them to account during that time, she said: “There’s an ongoing investigation into some of that which we need to let play through, so that we get the right outcome from that.

“But we have been working with the water companies over the whole time that the Environment Agency has been here and the National Rivers Authority beforehand.

“We’ve seen record levels of investment and record levels of improvement, so 4,500km of rivers across the country improved their status last year.

“We recognise that it’s not enough, we recognise that there’s more to do, but we also recognise there are additional pressures coming from climate change and other sources.

“So we’re absolutely committed to making the progress that we and the public wants to see.”

Meanwhile, the Angling Trust’s pilot scheme has quickly expanded across the country - with an additional 183 clubs, and 446 volunteers, now signed up to monitor 149 rivers nationwide.

River water is collected for testing Credit: ITV News Central

“I’m not surprised it’s popular - anglers are the eyes and ears of the rivers,” said Glyn Marshall, from the Worcester Angling Society.

It was his idea to launch the network at all, having bought his own testing kit after being involved in an ITV News Central investigation into river pollution in 2021 and growing increasingly concerned about what he found.

“It’s the loss of biodiversity - there just isn’t the plant life, the insect life, that there was when I first started coming here at 12 years old,” he said.

And the Angling Trust has warned that what anglers along the Severn have found is being mirrored up and down the country.

Offering a worrying insight into the scale of the crisis facing Britain’s rivers.

  • Full report by Charlotte Cross, as seen on ITV News Central: