Relief for Welsh rivers as Government commit to agricultural pollution regulations

Members and supporters of Salmon & Trout Conservation in Wales will be well aware of our relief that the Welsh Government has finally committed to the introduction of regulations to curb the scourge of agricultural pollution in Welsh rivers. The Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) Regulations 2021 are due to come into force on April the 1st and with acute incidents of pollution running at an average of three a week, it is desperately clear that they are long overdue.

In response to an opposition motion, seeking to annul the implementation of the regulations and tabled for debate at the Senedd on Wednesday, March the 3rd, you will be pleased to hear that S&TC Cymru has been busy lobbying MSs, urging them to oppose the annulment and support the introduction of these much-needed measures. We trust the majority will agree to this and that the regulations will be brought into law in due course.

Many have misunderstood or misrepresented the manner in which the new regulations will be introduced. It is important to note that they will be implemented in stages. The first element takes effect on 1st April 2021 and includes what is effectively the adoption into law of chapter 5 of the until now voluntary Code of Good Agricultural Practice, the current iteration of which has been in existence since 2011. S&TC Cymru has lobbied in favour of such a move for some time and we are pleased to see our efforts come to fruition. Farmers have clearly had plenty of time to demonstrate their ability to operate under voluntary guidelines – that they have failed to do so is patently obvious and they have no one but themselves to blame that their efforts have been found wanting. The remaining elements of the regulations will be held in abeyance until 2023 and 2024.

Should the sector wish, they have until October 2022 to propose a scheme of their own which would have the same or better effect as the regulations. This means that the retained elements will only be introduced if the sector is unable or unwilling to present an equally or more effective suite of measures. The Welsh Government announced its intention to legislate against polluting agricultural practices in 2017 and a draft of the regulations has been available for over 2 years. There can be no accusations that the process has been hurried or hastily conceived.

S&TC Cymru welcomes the introduction of the regulations, believing them to be the most realistic option of saving our rivers and their wild fish from terminal decline.

NRW’s planning advice on Wye pollution ineffective say conservation organisations Fish Legal and Salmon & Trout Conservation

Aquatic conservation organisations Fish Legal and Salmon & Trout Conservation (S&TC) have written to Natural Resources Wales (NRW) about on-going pollution of the River Wye and its headwaters and tributaries.

Following the publication of NRW’s “planning advice” to Councils on development on or near the River Wye and tributaries, Fish Legal and S&TC have told NRW that they consider the advice defective and risks further ecological damage to the river.

60% of Wye catchment failing

Currently 60% of the River Wye and its catchment fails environmental targets for phosphates; a key pollutant that causes algal blooms on the river leading to widespread ecological damage.

The River Wye is supposed to be protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, but NRW is not responding adequately to the threats posed to the river.

Not poultry farming, say NRW

The source of excess phosphates in the headwaters of the Wye and its tributaries is thought to be the many poultry farms that have been given permission in recent years, for example in the River Ithon catchment.

NRW’s public position in 2020 was that phosphate levels in the Wye catchment had improved. They did not address the obvious, severe and chronic ecological decline. But after belatedly admitting that levels of phosphate were too high, NRW put this down to the “tightening” of phosphate limits.

Fish Legal and S&TC point out that the recommendations for these tougher limits were made in 2016 and the river has been suffering from high phosphate levels for some years.

Despite good evidence that the phosphates come from poultry farming, particularly in Powys, NRW has repeatedly downplayed this potential cause, repeating that “phosphate is naturally occurring” or that “bank erosion”, “sewerage and foul water” are possible sources, although conceding vaguely that “land management practice” may also be a cause.

Interim planning advice

NRW has now published its ‘Interim advice for planning applications within the Wye catchment’ with the supposed intention of reducing the amount of development in and around the River Wye that could lead to further phosphate pollution.

Fish Legal and S&TC are concerned that the document is flawed. Commenting that it is not statutory guidance but simply advice which can be weighed against other considerations, such as economic benefits, and simply not followed.

It also leaves too much technical responsibility to the local authorities and fails to ensure that developments do not cause damage to SACs, where permission should not be granted unless there is certainty – beyond all reasonable scientific doubt – that the site will not be harmed.

Fish Legal and S&TC have asked NRW to clarify the status of the planning advice and believe, given the current polluted status of the River Wye, NRW should also be exercising its legal functions to impose phosphate reduction requirements – not mere ‘neutrality’ – for all relevant developments.

NRW also needs to indicate how it will:

  • Monitor more closely those large poultry units that it currently permits under pollution control regulations.
  • Robustly enforce permit conditions where necessary.
  • Address the cumulative impacts of multiple poultry developments in the headwaters of the Wye, including those developments which do not require pollution permits (i.e., below 40,000 birds).

Jamie Cook, CEO of Fish Legal, said. “The Wye is one of Britain’s greatest rivers, but it has been on the decline. There is good evidence about where the pollution is coming from and NRW must act upon this. This recent advice needs to be rethought so that it can be an effective tool to prevent further harmful development. Unfortunately, there appears to be very little that is being done to end the current source of pollution from existing sites and that simply must change”.

Nick Measham, CEO of S&TC, said: “NRW has a statutory responsibility to protect SACs such as the River Wye. That responsibility cannot just be set aside or watered down in order to allow the poultry industry to expand in an environment that has already reached and exceeded its capacity to cope with the pollution it causes.”

“NRW has a stark choice here. It has to decide what the law requires it to do. It cannot continue to duck and dive and try to fudge matters. We will be watching closely to see what it now decides.”