Environment Agency defends its record in River Wye pollution case

The Environment Agency has defended its record in enforcing statutory pollution controls in the River Wye catchment, as part of its defence in an ongoing legal challenge brought by environmental campaign group River Action.

The judicial review is ongoing at the Civil Justice Centre in Cardiff, with proceedings running into a second day on Thursday 8 February.

See also: Court action pending over Farming Rules for Water

River Action says the Environment Agency (EA) has acted unlawfully by failing to enforce environmental regulations (the Farming Rules For Water), resulting in “huge levels” of diffuse agricultural pollution entering the River Wye.

It argues that, even though the rules are supposed to prevent applications of manure to farmland beyond a crop’s requirement, Defra’s guidance provides enough leeway for excessive spreading to continue anyway.

For example, the guidance says farmers can still spread manure in the autumn beyond the crop’s “immediate need”, as long as it does not exceed the total requirement for the whole crop cycle.

River Action maintains that this guidance is at odds with the actual 2018 pollution regulations.

‘Car crash’

Speaking outside the Civil Justice Centre, River Action chairman Charles Watson said: “The agonising death of the River Wye has unfolded in recent years like a car crash in slow motion.

“This magnificent watercourse has in recent years been assaulted by a deluge of pollution from intensive agriculture, causing prolonged algal blooms.”

Much of this is attributed to the rapid growth in poultry production within the catchment, which has led to an overload of phosphorous in the region’s soils, he claims.

EA defence

Even though the EA said it could not comment on the specifics of the case, it insisted it was using funding and regulatory powers “to work with farmers to reduce water pollution and ensure they comply with the rules”.

“Last year, we carried out more than 4,000 farm inspections across England, including 493 in the Wye catchment,” said a statement.

“This resulted in 285 improvement actions in the Wye being undertaken to improve farm practices, ranging from improving storage of slurry to better management of nutrients and soils.”

The statement added that the Farming Rules for Water is just one of many regulatory tools used by the EA to manage the nutrient load in the Wye catchment.

“Furthermore, farming is not the only source of nutrient levels. Phosphorus has accumulated over a number of years and is affected by climate change, flow levels in the Wye, increased housing development, as well as industrial discharges into the Wye.”

No fixes

Legal representatives for River Action, however, told the court on Wednesday that, even when there had been breaches, the EA had failed to require fixes within a specified timeframe.

Between January 2020 and October 2023, there were 515 farm inspections on the Wye – with 31% found to breach regulations, the complainants added.