On 12th November, ITV Wales aired a programme “Wales This Week: Ruined Rivers”. It contained some sharp questioning of Lesley Griffiths AM, Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs and Natural Resources Wales about the regulation and control of agricultural pollution, which adversely affects many rivers in Wales, especially those in the west.
It also featured the Foundation’s Advisory Director, Dr Stephen Marsh-Smith OBE, talking on behalf of Afonydd Cymru, who earlier this year submitted a complaint to the EU over Welsh Government’s performance on behalf of all Welsh rivers trusts.
There have been some catastrophic slurry pollutions of Welsh rivers in recent years. Nobody will forget the images of upturned Teifi salmon and sewin in 2016. These incidents have a devastating and long term effect on the whole ecology of rivers, not just the fish.
In the Wye and Usk catchments the density of cattle is less than West Wales. Managing and utilising slurry therefore is much less of a challenge.
However, the programme highlighted two issues of serious concern. Firstly, that up to now Welsh Government appear to have placed rather too much faith in voluntary measures and advice to farmers and secondly, that NRW has inadequate resources to enforce whatever regulatory framework is used to protect our rivers.
Later in the week the Cabinet Secretary issued a statement announcing new regulations to tackle pollution from slurry and manures. These are to apply across the whole of Wales but won’t come into force until January 2020. But do they allay concerns?
Future regulations will only be as good as the enforcement. This has been next to non-existent and perhaps as a consequence, there has been little incentive to invest in the necessary infrastructure for safe storage of manures, essential farm infrastructure and safe spreading equipment.
The test, of course, will be as to whether there is a reduction in pollution events and if rivers become cleaner. In the meantime, it remains more important than ever to continue to report any signs of pollution to NRW.
There is some doubt as to whether the majority of farmers comply with the existing rules for storing and spreading slurry, as is frequently claimed. Whatever the case, sadly it only takes one “accident” to wreck a river for many years.
The statement lists many of the benefits of clean rivers, including the protection of the 80,000 people in Wales who rely on private water supplies. The removal of pollutants from drinking water also costs utility companies £billions each year, something we all pay for in our bills.
The UK’s new Agriculture Bill and Welsh Government’s “Brexit and Our Land” consultation show a clear direction of future policy. Support for land owners will be in exchange for public goods such as clean rivers and drinking water. This, combined with effective enforcement of the new regulatory measures, should better protect our rivers from poor agricultural practice and also reduce its cost to wider society.
This year the Wye and Usk Foundation started an innovative project working with farmers to quantify the value of nutrients lost from our catchments. More details of this project can be found here.
All the best from WUF.
Click here to view the ITV programme “Wales This Week: Ruined Rivers.”
Click here for Welsh Government’s statement on the new regulations they propose coming into force in January 2020.
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