Aerial view of the autumn leaves and colours at River Wye, Symonds Yat, Herefordshire, Midlands, England, UK

Care for your own river, environmentalists urge

Yorkshire campaigners clean up River Wharfe by applying for bathing water status.
22 July 2021 , Katie Coyne

Environmentalists George Monbiot and Franny Armstrong staged a live investigative documentary, Rivercide, last week (14 July) into the declining health of our rivers.

The documentary – a recording of which is now available at rivercide.tv – exposed the devastating impact sewage and farm pollution is having on the health of UK rivers. Just one river across the whole of the UK has bathing water status. For comparison, France has more than 500.

Monbiot is filmed shakily paddling down the River Wye that flows between England and Wales to meet campaigners at the bankside including a wild swimmer, salmon guide, and former Undertones-frontman-turned-river-campaigner Feargal Sharkey. This is interspersed with live interviews from local groups around the UK that have been campaigning and investigating river pollution.

We hear how while sewage is causing terrible damage to our rivers, by far the biggest polluters are farms – yet they can expect to be paid a visit by the Environment Agency (EA) once in 263 years. Monbiot tells viewers how the EA has had its budget slashed in the past decade, which is why the documentary makers – and new charity River Action – is calling for the agency to have its funding restored.

He said: “It’s the most extraordinary thing, in the midst of a national pollution crisis, Natural Resources Wales has had its budget cut by a third. The Environment Agency – would you believe it – by two thirds. How can they operate under those circumstances?

“If they can’t do it, if there’s no action on the part of the officials then what we are seeing is citizens stepping up to fill that gap.”

Monbiot wants to encourage this trend and is urging people to set up their own local ‘friends of rivers’ groups to protect the health of their waterways. He said: "You’d be hard pressed to find a single person in this country who actively wants dirty rivers. And yet every single one of the rivers, lakes and streams that’s monitored in England is now polluted.”

One suggested strategy for improving river quality was to apply for bathing water status. Campaigners interviewed in the show managed to stop releases of untreated sewage into part of the River Wharfe in Ilkley using this method. Designation means the Environment Agency has to carry out regular sampling of the stretch of water, and Bradford council has to make the results publicly available.

The Eden Project, which has more than a million visitors each year, has pledged to use its network to encourage its supporters to form ‘friends of river’ groups – and there may be signs this citizen activist approach might already be working.

This week the EA announced that it had secured funding to recruit 50 more staff to monitor farm pollution in rivers in England, and “take action where necessary”.

A spokesperson said: “This work to improve compliance with regulations that protect our water environment has been under way for many months, and we will have more to say on this in the coming weeks.

“Our farming reforms – the most significant changes for the sector in 50 years – will also help tackle this issue. Farmers will be paid for actions that help achieve clean and plentiful water – including reducing pollution from run-off into rivers.”

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