Which polluted Norfolk broads and rivers are failing ecology tests?
Pollution levels in some of Norfolk’s most treasured rivers and broads have been revealed in a stark new report – prompting urgent calls for water companies and farmers to stop the leakage of sewage and chemicals.
Data released by the Environment Agency (EA) shows that every English waterway failed to pass chemical pollution tests in 2019, due to improved monitoring techniques which can now more accurately report the presence of previously-unrecorded substances.
But the report also assesses ecological standards, finding that only 14pc of the 4,600 rivers, lakes and other waterways assessed are of “good” condition.
In the agency’s “Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk” region, more than 40 rivers and broads were given an overall “poor” or “bad” ecology rating – with sewage discharge, poor livestock management and poor nutrient management from farms cited among the main causes, along with transport drainage, urbanisation and water abstraction.
Rivers rated “poor” include parts of the Blackwater, Tiffey, Chet and Bure, while “poor” broads include Barton Broad, Hoveton Great Broad, Ranworth Broad, Ormesby Broad and Filby Broad.
Only two Norfolk watercourses fell into the lowest category of “bad”: The Binham tributary running into the River Stiffkey, and Fritton Lake, which is the hub of an ecotourism enterprise on the Somerleyton Estate near Lowestoft.
Estate owner Hugh Somerleyton said he was surprised by the low rating, after more than 10 years of work in partnership with environment officers and water companies to mitigate the impact of the estate’s farming operations, including a 1,000-acre rewilding project along the lake shore creating a buffer to the arable fields.
But he said Fritton Lake’s huge catchment meant there were many other sources of pollution beyond his control, including neighbouring livestock and arable farms, run-off from roads and villages, and sewage discharged from water treatment works – all listed as contributing factors in the EA report.
“The catchment map for Fritton Lake is vast,” he said. “It is several thousand acres of catchment and, theoretically, all water that falls on a road or a field ends up in Fritton Lake. Obviously we are quite a big stakeholder within that, but we are not the only one by any stretch. There are at least a dozen other farmers, settlements and other pollutants that end up in the lake that are way beyond our control.
“The rewilding acts as a significant buffer to the rest of the farm, acting as a sink for any run-off, and we are committed to regenerative agriculture so we don’t have bare ploughed fields where you get a lot of this run-off. We are doing all the mitigation that we can but if there is sewage overflowing from a drain we are not in control of that.
“No-one wants to be judged in the worst category of anything and we are very sensitive about that because we are very proud of the lake’s place as a natural reservoir for the local area, but also as a flagship rewilding and tourism asset for the estate, so we will read the data and work with our partners and neighbours to mitigate any of these flagged issues that are within our control.”
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The data shows little improvement in the state of our rivers since 2016 when the last data was published, despite government promises that 75pc of English rivers would be rated “good” by 2027.
The EA report sparked calls from conservation groups for the government to ensure legal commitments and urgent funding are in place to “turn the tide” for polluted waterways.
Environment Agency chairman Emma Howard Boyd said: “To get where we want to be everyone needs to improve how they use water now and that means water companies, farmers and the public.”
In response, water company bosses in East Anglia highlighted the investment being made in the next five years to improve river quality and prevent raw sewage discharges, while the region’s farming leaders outlined the industry efforts to reduce the run-off of fertilisers and pesticides from their fields.
An Anglian Water spokesman said: “Over the next five years we’re investing £811m as part of our Water Industry Natural Environment Programme (WINEP) –this includes work on protecting the environment and improving river water quality under the Water Framework Directive. Ours is the largest plan of any water company, with double the number of obligations than in the last five years.
“As part of our recently published Green Recovery Plan, we’re already in discussions with Defra regarding fast-tracking a further 241 schemes, to release £300m investment in nature in our region, including dozens of new treatment wetlands and innovative river restoration schemes, all designed to improve our rivers and natural environment without impacting customer bills.
“We support the call for further collective, multi-sector action to address the many different factors that have an impact on the quality of our rivers and streams.”
John Newton, Norfolk county adviser for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said the government has an opportunity to help farmers continue reducing chemical pollution by offering payment incentives through the Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), due to replace the EU subsidies being phased out after Brexit.
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“Norfolk farmers have made great strides in reducing key agricultural emissions over recent decades,” he said. “We’ve seen a major reduction in the amount of fertiliser applied to farmland and held in the soil, which means that far less nutrients are now reaching our rivers.
“Much of this progress has been made by farmers taking voluntary action on farm but industry-led initiatives also drive improvements that will benefit the water environment, as well as on farm productivity. Government-funded advice and incentives also play a key role and the future Environmental Land Management Scheme is an opportunity to do more.
“Farmers recognise more needs to be done and they will continue to do all they can to protect our vital water environment.”
The Environment Agency said a £3bn investment from 2015 to 2021 has led to more than 5,000km of surface water being enhanced, moving towards a predicted 8,600km by 2021, and £25bn has been invested to reduce pollution from sewage.
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