9 September 2020
Phosphate pollution threat to River Wye

Gazette readers will need no reminding that the River Wye is one of the great glories of Herefordshire and the Marches. Rising from the slopes of Plynlimon in mid-Wales, it winds its way through to Hay-on-Wye and Hereford and on to Ross, before heading down to Symonds Yat, Monmouth, Tintern and the Severn estuary. 

The Wye Valley is renowned for its beauty.  It is a Special Area of Conservation, with two Sites of Special Scientific Interest.  It was admired in Roman times and celebrated by Wordsworth.  Wye salmon remains known the world over, and the river supports a vast array of leisure activities; not just fishing, but canoeing and of course the superb rowing clubs we have in Hereford and Ross.

Yet readers will also know that the Wye is under serious threat from phosphates pollution. Algal bloom has robbed the water of oxygen and caused huge damage to the river’s ecosystem of plants, invertebrates and micro-organisms. It is killing the ranunculus that gives the river such character and supports many of its species. A petition to protect the Wye has attracted 70,000 signatures, underlining the huge strength of public feeling.

Historically, much of the problem has been caused by the run-off of phosphates from chicken litter. But farmers in Herefordshire have made huge efforts to reduce their impact on the river’s ecology. Yet these downstream improvements will mean nothing if pollution is flowing from the Upper Wye in Powys. 

Simon Evans, the Chief Executive of the Wye and Usk Foundation, says: “The ecological deterioration of the Welsh Wye continues. Both Powys County Council and Natural Resources Wales have a legal responsibility to protect Special Areas of Conservation like the Wye, but apparently have been unwilling to use the existing laws to protect the river."

I have been working over several months now with Herefordshire Council, Cllr Elissa Swinglehurst who chairs the Nutrient Management Board, and fellow MPs to address this issue. The Wye falls under the jurisdiction of the Environment Agency in England and of Natural Resources Wales, and I am grateful to the Environment Agency for their willingness to engage and assist.

However, we are waiting for more information from Natural Resources Wales and Powys County Council about the precise impact of phosphates from Powys.  We need thorough, reliable data, a commitment to a consistent monitoring programme, and an action plan to address this very serious problem. Soon.