From my upbringing in Scarborough on the east coast, then during service in the Royal Navy and latterly as an NFU environment adviser, I’ve lived on and with water all my life and care deeply about protecting it from polluters and pollutants.
Demand for water is rising; supplies are diminishing according to Sir James Bevan, CEO of the Environment Agency. Worse still, pollution of our seas and natural water supplies is on the increase from a whole range of activities. This is called diffuse pollution and it’s reaching crisis levels. I believe everyone needs to know what is happening and help solve the problem.
Diffuse pollution can follow many routes (pollution pathways) and build up over years. So perpetrators are practically impossible to identify and short term fixes hard to implement. We have to do things because we believe they will work even though they may take a while to show results. It really is an act of faith.
Nitrates and phosphates are the main diffuse pollutants. Leaching of both into watercourses and groundwater causes algal growth, which damages water quality and wildlife habitat.
Farming is easy to blame for this problem and indeed agriculture accounts for 50-70% of nitrate and 20-25% of phosphate pollution. But nitrates and phosphates are essential for promoting plant growth and occur naturally as well as being applied to crops. Better managing their use is the answer and that will come by working with, not blaming, the farming community.
It’s the same with pesticides that leach into both ground and surface waters. They are used extensively by farmers but also by local authorities, rail and highway agencies, landscape contractors and domestic gardeners. So everyone, and not just the farming community, must effectively manage pesticide use or find alternative measures.
The other great menace is silt, contained in run-off or resulting from natural bank erosion. It is a serious problem for the river Rother, smothering gravels on which fish breed, changing the depth and shape of the channel and creating problems at water treatment works.
What can be done? Actually, diffuse pollution has been tackled for at least 25 years, not least in agriculture. Technological advances have been very significant, making fertiliser and pesticide application more precise and managing tractor operations to reduce soil compaction and run-off pathways.
Several other initiatives are making marked and permanent improvements, notably the voluntary Campaign for the Farmed Environment and Natural England’s Catchment Sensitive Farming, while the Countryside Stewardship Scheme incentivises farmers to reduce risk.
More recently, we at the Arun & Rother Rivers Trust have set up the Rother Valley Farmers’ Group, supported by Southern Water, to bring catchment-scale improvements to our rivers.
Whether you are a farmer trying to do the right thing, an environmentalist impatient for faster improvement, or a facilitator under pressure to show value-for-money results, please be patient. Remember ‘the faith to plant acorns’!