Agenda item

River Water Pollution

This report presents information for the committee to consider regarding the factors contributing to the pollution of rivers and watercourses, the roles and responsibilities of lead agencies and a summary of the council’s duties and powers to support the lead agencies to address river pollution.



The Chair gave a brief introduction and overview of the report and suggested the discussion be broken down by structuring it around the four objectives listed in the work programme for the item:


·         Understand the factors contributing to the pollution of rivers and watercourses.

·         Examine the council’s duties and powers to address river pollution.

·         Scrutinise how the council fulfils its duties and exercises its powers.

·         Identify key partners and their roles and responsibilities

The Cabinet Member for the environment warned of oversimplifying the source of the pollution and focusing on just one of the causes of what was a complex and multi-faceted problem.


It was explained that when discussing phosphate it was important to consider the ecological impact on the river. Algal blooms were triggered by temperature, low flow, sunlight and nutrients.


Phosphate was not the only substance contributing to nutrient imbalance - ammonia and PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances) were also factors, but the focus of the committee’s discussion would be phosphate.


The cabinet member explained that phosphate was required for life and to make things grow, but that it had got out of balance and as covered in the RePhoKUs report phosphate levels had adversely impacted the nutrient balance in the catchment area, with a 3,000 tonne excess of Phosphate in the area.


The complexity of the problem was demonstrated by the numerous contributing factors including: run off, land drains, sewage treatment, detergents, soil health and peak flow of the river in response to rainfall.


The committee referred to the RePhoKUs report’s comments regarding phosphate getting into the subsoil and how that would potentially be a long-term problem with no short term fix.


The committee asked the cabinet member if they felt there were any gaps in the evidence.


The Cabinet Member noted that there was a lot of information on accumulation and legacy phosphate, but that robust data on total phosphorous and the impact it was having would be useful.


It was also noted that the use of soluble reactive as a proxy worked in relation to sewage treatment works, but was not an effective proxy for land-based studies.

The Cabinet Member stressed that in order to deal with the accumulation of legacy phosphate, it would be necessary to work towards solutions, involving building a greater understanding of how the phosphate could be copped out to help get the soils balanced again.



The committee heard from the Chief Executive of the Wye and Usk Foundation, who stated that understanding drives action and pointed out that the problem was chronic as well as acute.


The chronic problem was fundamentally related to the fact that too much phosphorous was being applied to the catchment soil - this was predominantly due to the intensification of agriculture and the basic supply chain/logistical pressures of locating feed stock close to the factories - with manure/waste products from that increasing the soils in those areas.


The Chief Executive then explained that the acute problem was the mechanism by which the phosphorous was getting into the water. There was an increased understanding that some of it was getting in through drain flow, overland flow and a lot was coming from yard run off and direct manure impact.

It was explained that the current focus was on phosphate P04, as that was the statutory monitoring programme. The statutory monitoring programme was built to measure what comes out of sewage works - soluble reactive phosphorous.


Regarding what comes from agriculture, it was stated that only about 10% of it is in the form of the soluble reactive phosphorous, the phosphate from the other 90% of the phosphorous was in other forms that people had been blind to and this was causing major ecological problems in certain catchment areas.


The Chief Executive explained that the Environment Agency was set to expand its monitoring programme to include other forms of phosphorous and that analysers were set in place in the catchment to start to understand this.


The Chief Executive pointed out that when dealing with the chronic problem, the 1,750 tonnes of bag phosphorous being applied was the excess and action from Avara could take 600-800 tonnes of that out - as farmers want to own the problem. Controlling the amount of fertilizer being applied to the soils determines whether or not the catchment is in balance and that can potentially be controlled through regulation.


In terms of solving the acute problem, the chief executive felt this was a more complex matter. There was a need to open up things wider than just phosphate in order to understand why the river was going green and why there were eutrophic problems. There were forms of condensed phosphorous predominantly coming from manures that fell outside of the current statutory monitoring programme and this needed to be addressed.



The Interim Delivery Director for Environmental Transformation explained how council members had placed considerable pressure on government to do more about the problem, including: a call for a WPZ (Water Protection Zone), round table and promise of a plan from the Secretary of State and the legal requirement on the agencies to produce a diffuse water pollution plan, however, there remained a need to go further.

The Interim Director pointed out that where this was a cross-government, cross-country problem, there was a need to bring systems thinking to bear and that the committee needed to think about systems as a whole and what needs to change within the system.


It was suggested that there was need to see, from the governments of both England and Wales, a proper scientific analysis of what it would take to actually recover the river, followed by a proper fair and open assessment of what the options were to do that. This might likely involve more voluntary action, a mixture of voluntary action and enforcement or a better set of tools.


The Interim Director noted that this was the first time in human history where there had been a requirement to manage down phosphate levels.


Thinking systematically about the problem, the potential solutions and having a public process that included the community would be crucial to solving the problem. The solutions would likely be very difficult and would require significant change within the poultry industry and significant change in farming practice.


The Interim Director stressed the need to focus energy on getting a proper process to get to a proper plan in place and then a properly resourced plan to deliver a solution.

The committee enquired who would lead the plan being discussed and it was explained that ultimate responsibility for such a plan would lie with Defra, although the council and other agencies could continue to press with soft power.


The committee asked about the powers available to the Council to assist in tackling the problem.


The Head of Environment Climate Emergency and Waste Services broke the powers down into four main categories, with some examples:


·         Planning and the ability to influence through planning.

·         Convening power of the Council - including working with and coordinating other organisations, bodies and regulators, which had led to lobbying for a water protection zone and the creation of a Cabinet Commission

·         General decision making of the Council – including decision reports and guidance from officers, environmental impacts featuring in all decision reports.

·         The general powers of competence - the general wellbeing powers pioneering nationally some of the mitigation projects, such as the wetlands and the phosphate calculator on how to evidence the mitigation. These had set national standards.


The committee asked if the Council was able to influence the water companies in relation to the amount of sewage input going into the waterways.


The Cabinet Member for the environment explained that the water companies have an investment period and were currently installing phosphate stripping technology into sewage treatment works. Welsh Water had invested £60 million in phosphate reduction for the catchment.


The Interim Delivery Director for Environmental Transformation pointed out that Welsh Water was looking to reinvest in communities and on the Wye and that plans were in place to manage new house builds.


The committee asked if it would be possible to draw up an action plan similar to the one that had been created for the flood risk strategy, with a view to establishing a standardisation for action plans moving forward.


The Interim Director explained that unlike with the flood risk action plan, Herefordshire Council was not a lead authority in this matter, but was a partner. However it would be possible to provide a plan about what the Council was trying to influence through the Cabinet Commission. It would also be possible to detail action around the planning system and how those levers were being used. Details of the limited role of environment enforcement and what is happening on the mitigation side could also be included.


The Chief Executive of the Wye and Usk Foundation explained they had been working with the Wye Catchment Partnership on a whole catchment approach to dealing with the principle issues. Once an issue has been identified it become possible to look at what the quantum of the issue is, what the cause is, the solution, then who implements the solution, where it happens and monitor it and feed it back.


It was explained that the approach allows for gap analysis, which is being built up with 124 different partners, of which the council is one. The Councils play a key role in this, but it is owned by everybody. What it will ultimately do is highlight gaps in research, knowledge and funding, which could feed into other related plans.


The committee noted that the Council was a publicly elected body within the 124 partners and that it would be crucial that they instilled confidence in the public and brought them along in the process, in order to ensure any plans were successful.


The Cabinet Member pointed out that housing in Herefordshire was responsible 0.02 of the problem and was mitigated. The housebuilding industry was being hit hard and restricting new builds was doing no good for the river nutrient neutrality in the region.

The Chief Executive of the Wye and Usk Foundation detailed an Environment Agency-funded project being run with the Foundation and some local farmers that had revealed a correlation between soil P indices and the amount leaving through land drains. Only one tenth was leaving through the land drains and in heavy soil areas this figure dropped to zero.


A Defra project for a phosphate balance calculator, would be able to focus on which of the soils need to be focused on to get phosphate applications and export into balance. This would create a science based pathway that farmers were aware of and engaging with to assist with putting in place better mitigation.


The Chief Executive stated that there was a lot going on, a greater understanding of the causes of the problem was emerging, the farmers were engaging, solutions were arising around legacy, but there were still fundamental issues with manure and manure management, which needed to be focused on.


The Chief Executive described to the committee how phosphate analysers, which allow for the recording of phosphate and other forms of phosphorous, were currently being used in the Wye and Usk catchment areas. The devices, of which there are currently three in the Usk catchment (funded by D?r Cymru Welsh Water) and one in the Wye catchment, enable continuous data retrieval on phosphorous components and ammonia. The analysers require a river bank lab, which costs approximately £40,000 to install and £20,000 per year to run.


An analyser on the Lugg would massively improve the efficacy of any plan to bring the river back into favourable conditions.


The committee noted that lost income resulting from the moratorium on building development had adversely impacted the GDP of the county and council by significant amounts and that funding the analysers being described seemed like a sensible positive development.


The Interim Director suggested that a recommendation about exploring such funding with others, such as Welsh Water, might be a sensible approach.


The Interim Director pointed out that the Council had used softer powers to inform the poultry industry and give it a greater understanding of what was happening in the river.


The Council had brought together the local farming community, Scottish Rural College, Defra, Natural England and the Environment Agency to do some detailed work on issues with the soil, which had resulted in a new tool that would measure phosphate within the field rather than having to send it off to labs. The tool was about to be trialled and further tools would allow farmers to make better choices regarding the impact of planting cover crops later or earlier.


The committee felt that work needed to be done with the Environment Agency in relation to manure management plans and raising awareness. There was a need for a regulatory floor, where there would be consequence for going below that.


The committee agreed that farming rules for water and control of agricultural pollution regulations needed improvement and both could be better. It was felt that here was a potential need to create an awareness campaign for what the requirements were, but this would be about getting things right and not punishing people.


The Interim Director raised a point of order, suggesting that the discussion was beginning to stray into areas of what the EA (Environment Agency) can do, and that the committee might want to invite an EA rep to discuss this before making recommendations.


The Chair acknowledged this point, but said that the recommendation would request working with the EA to inform and implement any campaign.


The committee discussed introducing a kitemark of quality to highlight a catchment sensitive farming approach where it has been taken. It was pointed out that the Herefordshire Farming Alliance was already doing something similar through ‘river friendly farming’ and ‘river friendly food’.


The committee asked the Chief Executive of the Wye and Usk Foundation if it might be possible to obtain a breakdown of the 124 partners involved in the whole catchment approach.


The Chief Executive confirmed that it would be possible to do so and that the partners ranged from government, supermarkets, supply chains, deliveries to farmers, citizen scientists, wildlife trusts and other councils.


ACTION: The Chief Executive of the Wye and Usk Foundation to provide a breakdown of the 124 partners in the whole catchment process by governance area, for reference.


The committee discussed and made a number of amendments to the proposed recommendations on this item relating to:


b) adding funding for analysers to the recommendation to ensure decisions are being made based on accurate data.

c) concerns were raised about the EA not being engaged before putting the recommendation forward, but the committee felt that the recommendation was proposing working with the EA.

d) to acknowledge the need to work with partners already running similar schemes, such as the Herefordshire Food Alliance.


Following debate, the committee unanimously voted in favour of making the following recommendations to the Executive:





a)    The Executive should consider drawing up a River Improvement Direct Action Plan itself, constructed around the Council’s existing statutory responsibilities, to inform policy development, prioritisation on actions to be taken, including those in the pipeline, budgeting and resourcing. This would also refer to and draw from related plans being constructed by partners; and

b) The Executive should collect its own water quality samples, through funding analysers on the river Lugg specifically:


- first to fulfil its role as the “competent” authority under the “Habitat regulations”

- second, to use as evidence on the true state of our rivers in our catchment area, in negotiations with partners on the required river improvement actions;

- third, as a response to the claim by RePhokUs in their latest report, “that current inconsistencies in river water quality monitoring programmes are confounding understanding of the impact of variable farming pressures and P surpluses on river P pollution; and


c) With the EA, an awareness and engagement campaign should be run within the livestock and agricultural sector, covering manure management plans and compliance with the requirements of the “Storing silage, slurry and agricultural fuel oil regulations”; and


d) With livestock and agricultural producers, the Executive should explore the value of a kitemark designation for local sourced produce to indicate they have come from “Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF)” practices. This should include discussion with the Herefordshire Food Alliance and any other interested partners; and


e) That the Executive should push strongly through the existing Cabinet Commission, for the proposed SoS led plan for the river Wye to include a glide path to a Water Protection Zone, if all voluntary arrangements fail to achieve river recovery.

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