An Environment Agency boss today warned Britons to not risk swimming in the country’s rivers amid continuing concern over sewage being dumped into them.
John Leyland, the agency’s chief of staff, insisted rivers were ‘not there for human swimming’ and were instead ‘for the wildlife and the fish that live within them’.
It comes after data released by the EA agency shows that water companies dumped raw sewage into England’s rivers and seas more than 400,000 times last year.
Environmental campaigners have also raised concerns that only 14 per cent of rivers in England are rated in ‘good’ ecological health and none meet chemical standards.
Mr Leyland spoke during an ITV documentary due to air at 7.30pm tonight looking at water quality following a spike in interest in wild swimming during the pandemic.
John Leyland, the Environment Agency’s chief of staff, said rivers in Britain were ‘not there for human swimming’ and were instead ‘for the wildlife and the fish that live within them’
During the programme, reporter Joe Crowley asked Mr Leyland if people should be wild swimming in rivers with evidence of raw sewage being dumped in them.
And Mr Leyland replied: ‘The rivers that we have are not there for human swimming. They’re there for the wildlife and the fish that live within them. And the current regulations require us to try and get the water to a health that’s suitable for that.
‘I think if we want to start talking about water that’s fit for human health then that is a good conversation to have, but that is a much bigger conversation.’
Asked if it was a personal risk, he said: ‘I don’t swim in rivers and I would just advise everybody to use the information and data. I wouldn’t advise anybody to take a risk.’
Campaigners for cleaner waters believe the decline in UK rivers is due to raw sewage being dumped there and water companies self-monitoring this since 2010.
A still from one the videos of a river used in ITV’s Tonight documentary ‘What’s In Our Water?’
The programme looks at how just 14% of rivers in England are rated in ‘good’ ecological health
The firms carry out their own pollution testing and are expected by the EA, which is the regulator, to report how often they are dumping untreated sewage.
But pressure groups say the EA’s enforcement budget has been cut by almost two thirds since self-monitoring was brought into action, meaning monitoring is limited.
Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor for the Salmon and Trout Conservation, said there is no incentive for some to report, adding: ‘Frankly it’s only human nature.
‘If you’re a sewage works manager in a small town and your boss in central office is giving you a hard time because the works has been having a bit of a problem and you get the chance to tweak to make it look a bit better, what are you going to do?’
During the programme, Mr Crowley also spoke to an unnamed whistleblower, who worked as a senior figure at one of the major water companies.
This map from Surfers Against Sewage, part of its Safer Seas and Rivers Service, tracks real-time combined sewage overflows and pollution risk forecasts, and monitors the water quality at over 400 locations around UK rivers and coastlines
The person alleged that it was easy to cheat and cut corners, saying that they knew when water inspections would take place.
The whistleblower said: ‘Most of the time we wouldn’t treat the sewage properly but when we knew a sample was due to take place then we’d start following best practices and use the chemicals so that our samples would pass.
‘We’d always find a way to make the samples pass, it didn’t matter how we got there … if there was a way to save money and find loopholes, that’s what we would do.’
A spokesman for WaterUK, which represents water companies in the UK, said: ‘The water industry is one of the most heavily regulated sectors in the UK.
‘Policies and procedures are in place to provide assurance that wastewater sampling is appropriate and accurate. All water company staff are encouraged to report any issues anonymously.’
This map from The Rivers Trust shows where sewage enters local rivers. The trust advises people to avoid entering the water immediately downstream of these discharges and avoid the overflows (brown circles), especially after it has been raining
ITV said its programme was not able to verify the whistleblower’s claims.
The show will be broadcast as it emerged the UK’s flagship environment legislation will fail to clear Parliament before the Cop26 climate talks begin in Glasgow.
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg confirmed that amendments made by peers to the Environment Bill will be considered by MPs on November 8 – midway through the global climate event.
It is hoped the stand-off between the two Houses will end next month and the Bill can then receive royal assent to become law.
During the programme, ITV reporter Joe Crowley (pictured) also spoke to an unnamed whistleblower, who worked as a senior figure at one of the major water companies
On Tuesday, the Government climbed down over legal controls against dumping raw sewage into waterways following a backlash inside and outside Parliament.
The House of Lords backed by 213 votes to 60, majority 153, a proposal to place a new legal duty on water companies to ‘take all reasonable steps’ to prevent sewage discharges.
This enabled the Bill to be sent back to the Commons, where the Government will table its own amendment.
It will put a legal duty on utility firms to ‘secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows’.
Tonight – ‘What’s In Our Water?’ will be shown on ITV at 7.30pm this evening