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River Ecosystems

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 27 February 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what measures they are taking to address the threat posed to river ecosystems by a combination of farm chemicals, sewage and excessive abstraction.

My Lords, I declare my farming interests as set out in the register. England’s river ecosystems are the healthiest they have been since the Industrial Revolution. More than 5,900 miles of rivers have been improved since 2010. Where our catchment-sensitive farming programme operates, pesticides in our rivers have fallen by 50% since 2006. Serious sewage pollution incidents have fallen by 89% in the past 25 years. More than 40 billion litres per year of unsustainable abstraction has been prevented since 2008. We intend to go further.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his encouraging words, but farmland birds have declined by more than half since 1970. More urgent action is needed to tackle sewage effluent chemicals and damaging abstraction of water from rivers and groundwater, which is preventing 15% of rivers meeting good ecological status. On the announcement for abstraction reform to review existing licences and introduce more controls to protect water resources, will this review feed into the 25-year environmental plan, and will targets be set?

My Lords, the whole 25-year environmental plan—and, indeed, all our plans, including in the Agriculture Bill and the environmental land management schemes—is predicated on the need to enhance our environment. Water quality and water supply is clearly one of our priorities. On abstraction reform, we will certainly be looking at increasing supply, reducing demand and reducing leakages. We are already bringing back targets in many of those areas into our law.

My Lords, I refer to my declaration in the register of interests. Natural England has responsibility for ensuring that our farmland is managed responsibly and our rivers protected, but its budget has been cut by 47% over the last five years. In addition, 50 staff have been poached by Defra to deal with Brexit. How can it possibly be expected to carry out its job effectively when it really does not have the resources to do it?

My Lords, the figures have shown how not only Natural England but the Environment Agency and the water companies have actually produced very strong improvements in difficult times, when everyone has had to retrench. River basin management plans involving Natural England, Defra and water companies are all about improving water quality across river basins from 2015 to 2021. All of this, and a lot more, is why water quality and supply will be increasingly important.

My Lords, among the most important components of sewage that have become more detrimental to wildlife are the pharmaceuticals going down the lavatory as part of human sewage. They are causing infertility in everything from killer whales to dog whelks, because hormones are extremely damaging to wildlife in the long term. Can sewage treatment plants do anything to improve this situation?

My Lords, this goes back to the products produced and the importance, with research and technology, of alternatives. It is why our ban on microbeads is tremendously important. We need to do more, both in our own products but more generally with what we put on the land. That is where alternatives and precision farming will be very important.

My Lords, can the Minister tell us his department’s assessment of the impact of future climate change on our rivers and freshwaters and what steps are being taken to deal with the threat of climate change on water quality and quantity?

The noble Lord raises something hugely important: we have not only to adapt but to mitigate. That is why the environmental land management schemes, involving what we hope will be 70% of the land farmed in this country, will be precisely about how we mitigate and adapt and how we ensure that we improve water quality through things such as planting trees and better environmental management generally.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a riparian owner. Abstraction is an issue in any area with few reservoirs, and particularly with rivers designated as being of special scientific interest. Of equal concern is abstraction for commercial purposes to clean salads. In particular I point to Bakkavör, a company in Alresford, which imports salads from Europe and cleans them, and the water then goes back into the river system. My question to my noble friend the Minister is: what steps can we take to ensure that water that goes back into the river after cleaning processes is of the same quality as the water abstracted in the first place?

My Lords, this goes back to the point about needing to ensure that we reduce abstraction and that we have only sustainable abstraction of water. On the principle that the polluter pays, we certainly need to ensure—and we do increasingly ensure—that people using water return it in better quality than they might do now.

My Lords, our rivers are now cleaner than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. That is a very reassuring and fine achievement, but is it not largely the result of the environmental policies and directives of the European Union?

The noble Lord raises the point that we are bringing back environmental law. We the British have been some of the pioneers of that within the European context and we are very pleased to have that environmental enhancement, wherever it comes from.

My Lords, the Northumberland Rivers Trust, of which I was at the time a trustee, tried to solve the problem of poor water quality in the River Blyth in spring and summer, when it went turbid and cloudy and there was a detrimental impact on the ecosystem. After doing a lot of work on farms, it was concluded that the main problem was the invasive alien signal crayfish. Does my noble friend agree that invasive alien species are a form of pollution that can be even more damaging than other forms?

My Lords, even invasive species usually need good-quality water in which to, unfortunately, flourish. I am very strong on this—invasive species have caused great harm to our natural ecosystems, and we need to manage those species properly, because otherwise we will lose our natural ecosystems.