Dangerous pollutants in England’s waterways have reached their highest levels since modern testing began, The Times can reveal, with no river in the country now certified as safe for swimmers.
Wild swimming has surged in popularity, with tens of thousands of people bathing in countryside rivers and ponds during the heatwave.
However, an investigation by this newspaper has revealed that rivers in England are not tested enough to be considered safe for swimming. Eighty-six per cent fall short of the EU’s ecological standard — the minimum threshold for a healthy waterway — up from 75 per cent a decade ago.
In addition, half of all stretches of river monitored by the Environment Agency exceeded permitted limits of at least one hazardous pollutant last year, including toxic heavy metals and pesticides.
Despite serious pollution incidents frequently exceeding the limits, prosecutions by the agency against the regional monopolies that run Britain’s sewage systems have declined — to three last year from thirty in 2014.
In some cases the agency is allowing the water companies to suggest their own penalties, usually contributions to charity. Experts say that this leaves water companies feeling free to pollute rivers. Kerry McCarthy, MP, a member of the environmental select committee, said that the companies were “treating fines as the cost of doing business, rather than seeing them as a serious deterrent”, adding: “The Environment Agency needs to step up.”
David Slater, a former director of the agency, said: “Cutting budgets absolutely has an effect: fewer policemen means less testing and less enforcement — and as we’ve seen with some of the water companies, people will take advantage of lax enforcement.”
Last month Southern Water was fined a record £127 million for “shocking” breaches that allowed raw sewage to be released into rivers and on to beaches. Environmental groups are now calling for reform of the Environment Agency. Stuart Singleton-White, of the Angling Trust, said: “We’re going backwards — our rivers are getting worse.”
Hundreds of wild-swimming clubs have formed across the country in the past two years, according to the Outdoor Swimming Society, whose membership has climbed to more than 70,000 from only a couple of hundred a decade ago.
Most people who enjoyed waterside beauty spots last week will have been unaware of how Britain’s ageing sewage system is being overwhelmed, placing wildlife and people at risk.
Parents of young children who were playing in the River Wharfe in the spa town of Ilkley, West Yorkshire, during hot weather last month were unaware of how sewage outflows upstream were likely to have poured raw waste into the water after thunderstorms. Tests paid for by the local council suggest that levels of harmful bacteria in the Wharfe surge after rainfall.
In rivers across the country, toxic metals such as lead and mercury, as well as insecticides, are regularly exceeding limits that should never be breached under EU rules that were championed by Britain.
Safe limits for cadmium — a carcinogen used in batteries, which Mr Slater fears is leaching from landfill sites — have been breached more than 1,200 times in the past two years.
The Times has also found evidence of raw sewage being dumped in rivers, including close to spots used by swimmers and anglers, via emergency outflows that should be used only in exceptional storm conditions. One such outlet released raw sewage into a vulnerable trout river in Yorkshire after a rainfall of only 1mm.
Those who swim in infected waters face danger from bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella and listeria. Diseases such as leptospirosis, septicaemia and hepatitis A are also linked to sewage pollution and can be fatal.
Almost 10 per cent of the tests carried out by the Environment Agency for hazardous pollutants returned a result above its “maximum allowable limit” — the highest proportion recorded since testing began 20 years ago.
Under EU rules, the government is committed to ensuring that all rivers are of a good ecological standard by 2027. According to the World Wildlife Fund, ministers are “not remotely on course” to achieve this target.
Scientists say that the agency’s testing regime is not fit to deal with the pollutants flushed away by households, industry and agriculture. The fine of £127 million imposed by Ofwat on Southern Water last month was for “deliberate misreporting” of data and dumping an unknown amount of untreated sewage into rivers and streams and on to beaches over seven years. The Environment Agency has begun a criminal investigation.
The agency missed its target for reducing the number of serious and significant pollution incidents to 400. The figure rose to 493.
The sources of pollution in England’s rivers include industry, agricultural run-off and legacy contamination from mines. However, the agency says that more than a third of rivers are failing to meet ecological standards because of sewage. There are 16,000 sites across the country where water companies are legally permitted to spill untreated waste into rivers.
The number of water quality tests taken by the agency for all pollutants fell to 1.3 million last year from nearly five million in 2000. The agency says that monitoring has become “more targeted, risk-based and efficient”, peaking in 2013 after “extensive water quality investigations required for the first cycle of the [EU] water framework directive”. Experts say, however, that monitoring is deteriorating as budgets and staffing levels fall.
The agency described the performance of Britain’s water companies last year as “simply unacceptable” after 56 “serious pollution incidents”. The agency aims for zero by next year.
Rick Battarbee, of the Environmental Change Research Centre at University College London, said that he had been “horrified” when he grasped how often untreated sewage was being released in rivers. He said: “It is ironic that water companies seem to make a lot of money and at the same time the Environment Agency has less and less money to police them. There should be much stricter controls on the companies.”
The agency said: “Water quality is now better than at any time since the Industrial Revolution, largely due to the £25 billion of investment that the Environment Agency has required water companies to make.
“It is wrong to claim the agency’s budget and staffing levels are dramatically impacting on our ability to monitor water quality. We are the largest environmental protection agency in Europe, with a budget of over £1 billion. Numbers of operational staff have increased by 10 per cent since 2016.”
The agency also said that some recent serious pollution incidents had been caused by extreme weather.