When waste water from commercial and industrial processes is discharged into rivers, waterways or seas, the result can be serious pollution and environmental damage. We often think of discharges from industrial processes, but two of the main offenders would surprise many people. The first is agriculture, and the second is the water companies themselves.
The Role of Agriculture in Water Pollution
With a growing population, more food has to be grown. Inevitably, more fertilisers are used in farming and agriculture to make a limited acreage produce more.
One of the ways the UK Environment Agency attempts to deal with this problem is by encouraging farmers to implement a nutrient management plan. This is a strategy for using the minimum necessary amount of nutrients and fertilisers, with the rationale that the less of them that are used, the less pollution there will be in water courses and groundwater due to run-off from agricultural land.
Many farms are in zones that are designated as vulnerable to nitrates. Any land that drains off to water with a tendency to be affected by nitrogen pollution will be zoned and will have special regulations applied to it. This zoning applies to about 70% of all land. In these zones, farmers can only apply the minimum of nitrogen fertiliser and have to keep detailed records going back at least five years.
However, there’s also a risk where farmyard manure is used to fertilise crops. This can contain all kinds of micro-organisms that cause disease, including Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, E. coli, Listeria and Salmonella. If water from the manure heap or the fields leaks into the rivers, there is a risk to both human health and aquatic life.
There is an interesting site for those interested in this topic, plus there is the government’s water quality website :https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/water-quality.
Water Companies Hit by Heavy Pollution Fines
You might expect water companies to be “cleaner than clean” in terms of polluting activities, but there has been a recent spate of heavy fines against them for causing pollution. In fact, the most persistent polluters of both beaches and water systems are water companies – usually in their role of treating sewage, where inappropriate and accidental discharges have been common.
Yorkshire Water was fined £1.1m in April 2015 for an overflow of sewage into the River Ouse. A pump failed and the back-up pump wasn’t working. When the Environment Agency visited a year later, the backup pump still wasn’t working. The following January the water company was fined a further £600,000 for a sewage leak into a lake that killed over 800 fish.
Thames Water has had a number of penalties for pollution. They appeared not to be mending their ways, and the Environment Agency took them to task over 1.4bn litres of untreated sewage leaked into rivers at various pumping stations. The Thames was polluted, and the cray fishermen were unable to catch crayfish as the fish were contaminated.
The Guardian reported the court’s judgement in March 2017. (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/22/thames-water-hit-with-record-fine-for-huge-sewage-leaks) The court issued a fine designed to make the company pay attention and mend its ways – a record £20 million. The judge commented that the message had to be got across to the shareholders that the environment should be protected, not poisoned.
Wouldn’t It Be Cheaper to Monitor?
Many of the failures come down to the absence of proper water quality monitoring procedures. If these had been in place, they could have provided an early indication of the need for urgent action. Even putting such a system in place would show some commitment to taking the problem seriously. Let us hope all the responsible parties take prompt action in this vital area.