“There’s water, water of life”. Those words were part of a hymn I had to sing at my small C of E primary school in the heart of the Cotswolds as a child. While little water runs through the village of Chedworth where my school lay, the Cotswolds has certainly been blessed with at least three watery veins, notably, the rivers Windrush, Coln, and Thames. These waters though, are worryingly seeing less and less of life. They have become the sum of corporate disregard for the environment, and a polluted society and politics unable to hold shareholders accountable. This river pollution puts the Cotswolds ecosystem in danger just like pesticides in my earlier article.
Thames ‘polluting’ water
Just this September, Thames Water informed WASP (Windrush Against Sewage Pollution) that there was a spill of ‘untreated sewage into the Windrush … caused by a blockage’. Such spills are sadly not uncommon, both for Thames Water and the river Windrush, but also for rivers across the UK. Thames Water itself ranks joint second with Anglian Water in worst overall performance for the Environment Agency’s 2020 environmental assessment. It had 292 total pollution incidents and 13 serious pollution incidents, with it contributing 17% of all pollution incidents in England by water and sewage companies last year.
The figures here seem fairly low in perspective, but they do not tell the full story. Alongside pollution incidents there are perfectly legal practices of storm overflows. Storm overflows are where a water and sewage company may discharge sewage in a ‘regulated manner’ into the sea, rivers, or other bodies of water due to overflows in drains and the sewer system as a result of heavy rainfall. Thames Water had 472 storm overflows in 2020 where on average there were 40 spills of sewage for an average of 12 hours per storm.
While storm overflows are legal themselves, lawyers of the Salmon and Trout Conservation stated that the ‘water companies have for 30 years a legal duty- enforceable by the Secretary of State for Environment and Ofwat (Office for Water) to “effectually drain sewers” and “effectually deal with sewage”’. This statement by the lawyers of the Conservation is part of a complaint they have lodged with the new Office for Environmental Protection. Alongside this complaint, the Environment Bill that is currently going through Parliament places a duty upon the government to draw up a plan by this time next year to reduce storm overflows.
A long way to go and Brexit
None of this, however, will be enough to truly protect our rivers and the Cotswolds Ecosystem. According to an update to Burford Town Council in September, it will take 10-15 years for the river Windrush to be returned to its original natural state and that is without further sewage spills into it over the winter. In 2019 alone, Witney Sewage Treatment works ‘dumped untreated sewage on 97 occasions for an appallingly high total of 1563 hours in 2020, up from 76 times for 1395 hours.’
And in a further concerning pattern, Brexit shortages, particularly of ferric sulphate for sewage treatment, has led DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) to introduce a waiver. The waiver allows companies to not have to undertake a third stage treatment of sewage if they do not have the right chemicals.
A large part of these shortages are due to the knock-on effects of Brexit and the haulage crisis.
And our representatives?
In the Cotswolds our politics seem polluted, with Members of Parliament taking few actions on the issue of our polluted waters. In fact Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown has never mentioned sewage or rivers in the entire 29 years that he has been a Parliamentarian, even though both the polluted Thames and Windrush rivers run through his constituency.
Robert Courts, MP for Witney where the river Windrush flows through, has been involved in raising the issue of sewage in rivers. He supported the 2018 Private Members’ Bill on Bathing Water brought forward by the Conservative and North Cornwall MP Scott Mann.
The Bill sought to give ‘the Environment Agency additional powers to control and reduce the discharge from the combined sewer overflows’. The Bill was another casualty of Brexit, with it not being passed by Parliament before the end of the Parliamentary session that came when Boris Johnson held an election in December 2019 to ‘Get Brexit Done’.
Beyond this bill, Courts has been clear in his criticism of Thames Water and their failure to improve its infrastructure to reduce and prevent storm overflows, with him highlighting this in a letter to WASP in August.
Despite this, as Ashley Smith lead campaigner of WASP has stated, even if our representatives do take some interest in this issue:
“What kind of ludicrous system leaves the local MP to have … to call upon a water company over which he has no authority to do something which is already too late by that point?”
Powerless against big companies
While WASP and others are working hard to raise this issue and protect the Cotswolds Ecosystem, they are ultimately powerless as small voices against share prices. It is not enough for our system to be expecting the people to be holding corporations’ feet to the fire when only a loss of profit can really do so.
Water is a natural monopoly and there is no means for the public to boycott or truly have their voices heard on protecting their environment. Beyond fines and criticism, no government body appears able to hold water companies accountable for their ecocide. It appears all too clear that our rivers will only now become ‘water of life’ once again when water is not for profit, but for the community and nature.
We are in a climate and ecological crisis, the Cotswolds ecosystem is in danger and it is time our communities had ownership of the tools to face it. At this moment it seems all too easy to simply be wailing ‘there is no water of life’.
Ed: This problem of river pollution isn’t confined to the Cotswolds and Thames Water. Our sister publication, Sussex Bylines, is taking Southern Water to task for polluting the Adur and Ouse rivers.