‘Agriculture and sewage polluting rivers, wetlands and waters’ – report

 Ant Broads and Marshes in the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads

Ant Broads and Marshes in the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads is one of the areas highlighted in Troubled Waters report: BRITTANY WOODMAN - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Rivers and water bodies in England – including in East Anglia – are failing to meet standards for good ecological status because of water pollution from agricultural waste and raw sewage, a report says.

The Troubled Waters report by environmental charities including the RSPB, the Rivers Trust and the National Trust warns water bodies are being harmed from a range of sources including farm waste and pollution from abandoned mines.

Rivers, wetlands, and waters around the UK are being damaged – putting habitats and wildlife at risk, it concludes, citing examples including in the Norfolk and Suffolk broads, where it cited sewage as the dominant source of pollution.

In England, just 14% of rivers meet “good” standards while 31% make the grade as good or high quality in Northern Ireland. Less than half are up to the right quality in Wales.

The report calls for better monitoring and enforcement on pollution.

It also calls for a transition to more nature-friendly, sustainable farming practices, legally-binding targets for wildlife and freshwater, and moves to stop untreated sewage reaching rivers.

In 2019, Natural England reported 89.7% of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) units classified under ‘river’ in England were in unfavourable condition.

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The Troubled Waters report highlights seven case studies – including the Ant Broads and Marshes SSSI in Norfolk and Suffolk – which have been designated as sites of special importance for nature but are suffering from water pollution.

The Ant Broads and Marshes were designated an SSSI partly due to being considered as one the best examples of unpolluted valley fen in Western Europe, the report said. 

“It forms part of The Broads Special Area of Conservation (SAC), which collectively support over a quarter of the UK’s rarest species. 

“The site supports a variety of species including the fen orchid, the swallowtail butterfly, and birds such as the bittern and marsh harrier,” it said. 

But it added: “Nutrient enrichment and water abstraction pressures have since resulted in reduction of water quality and water levels, and increased acidity. 

“This has caused negative changes in biodiversity. Targets for the phosphate levels in the SAC lakes for the Broads are over two-thirds lower than the levels Anglian Water are permitted to discharge post-sewage treatment. 

“The Diffuse Water Pollution Plan for the area clearly demonstrated that sewage treatment works were the dominant source of phosphate, and that the SSSI is impacted by these high levels of phosphate. 

“Across the SSSI, the fate of calcareous fen is particularly vulnerable, as once phosphate gets into fen, it binds to peat soils and is extremely hard to remove.”

RSPB deputy director of policy Jenna Hegarty said: “It is disturbing how it has become so normal for our waterways to be polluted and contaminated, and that many people do not realise there is something wrong.

“Governments must demonstrate leadership and act with urgency and ambition to bring our waterways back from the brink of collapse and revive our world.”

An Anglian Water spokeswoman said: “Last year saw us achieve some of the best water recycling works compliance we have ever seen as well as delivering an unprecedented number of investment schemes to protect and enhance the environment as part of the Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP).

“This year we completed a £9m project to install a new water pipeline to allow us to stop abstraction in the environmentally sensitive Ant Valley, which includes Catfield Fen SSSI, as part of our commitment to reduce the amount of water we take from the environment by 84m litres a day across our region by 2025. 

“We will also be carrying out detailed investigations into the nearby Water Recycling Centre, to understand what measures we can put in place to reduce the phosphate levels in treated water before it is returned to the environment.”