Sewage in rivers forces government u-bend u-turn

The River Windrush is a tourist attraction. But so many tourists are now coming to the river and staying in pretty Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds that they are polluting the very river they have come to see with their sewage. That would not be a problem, if only the water companies did something about it – but the water companies are resisting, because it will harm their profits. Ben O’Rourke investigates.

“I moved near to the Windrush in 2013,” says Ashley Smith on a bridge over the cloudy river. “I was quite surprised then to see … the absence of fish life. I … started to see troubling things like clumps of foam coming down the river and this murky water, which I understood to be not natural. People have told me how clear this river really was. When I started talking to the Environment Agency it became clear they’d kind of given up and they were trying to convince themselves that everything was all right and I started a campaign because I thought if we don’t do something, nobody’s going to.”

Ashley fished around for volunteers and found “very capable people… with different skills” to fight back against the EA’s lacklustre enforcement against Windrush River polluters.

“Either just to get out and look or some with very relevant professional skills … that put huge amounts of effort into exposing the reality of this and without them, this picture would not be emerging. Frankly it’s been buried, been hidden by the Environment Agency and DEFRA, who are quite happy to feed OFWAT with the sort of information they wanted to keep water bills down.”

Ashley labels the pollution an “environmental disaster”, a commonly misused term in days dominated by dire climate-change premonitions that never happen. This though, is real and happening now.

One of Ashley’s key recruits is Vaughan Lewis, who used work for the EA when it was called the National River Authority. Even back then it was dismissing discolouring of water as an opinion, instead of obvious fact.

“I’ve lived in Oxfordshire for 40 years and like many people witnessed the slow decline in our rivers,” he says. “I can remember being stunned by the amount of fish you could see … now there are no fish in the numbers that they were … and if there were you couldn’t see them. It’s a systemic change that’s happened on most of the rivers locally.”

Vaughan says it’s cash that controls some of the pollution studies.

“The problem is, very often the water industry try and grab some of these [environment] groups inside the tent and money talks and they fund projects, they fund research, they fund monitoring, they fund study and of course, that’s very handy to an industry that doesn’t want resolution of problems because it’s going to cost them far too much money. Much cheaper to fund some groups to do some stuff.”

He admits accepting funding for certain projects he’s done but says he’s always sceptical and adds that sewage pollution affects more than just rivers.

“This is very permeable [ground we are on]. Anything going into this can go anywhere in the groundwater system and somebody near to a sewage works will be extracting water and they’ll be getting the benefit of somebody else’s sewage in their drinking water.”

Stay up to date on this story on Martin Salter’s blog

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