River Wye pollution: People power is fierce to save iconic river and protect UK waterways - while the authorities squirm

The people power movement is growing - and it is clear from River Action's legal case to save the River Wye that the authorities are squirming
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River Action’s legal case against the Environment Agency (EA) and the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is a real people power challenge against the authorities and one which won’t be forgotten. I witnessed the protest that took place in Cardiff before the case began on Wednesday (7 February) and I was in court to hear both sides of the case - and to me it seems the authorities are squirming and the people are angry, fed up and passionate to hold them accountable. 

The drums, chants, and buzz of the protest filled the air in Cardiff city centre on Wednesday morning. Protestors were fierce, they were angry, and they were there in full force to support River Action’s legal case. 

The charity’s claim is that the EA and Defra have acted unlawfully in failing to enforce important environmental regulations, such as the Farming Rules for Water (FRfW), and in doing so has failed to protect the Special Area of Conservation of the River Wye from the huge levels of diffuse agricultural pollution. In court, David Wolfe KC, speaking on behalf of River Action, said the EA’s approach is “allowing farmers to continue to break the law”. 

Local campaigners who joined the protest ahead of the case chanted outside the court “solutions not pollution”, “species not faeces” and “save the Wye”. Banners read “cut the cr**” and one campaigner was dressed in a huge costume as the ‘Goddess of the Wye’. Everyone there joined together to support a legal case to protect the River Wye and they were all fed up with the state rivers are in across the country and the amount of pollution being pumped into them. 

Sewage campaigner Feargal Sharkey was amongst the protestors, and told me he hopes the case wins so it exposes “the sham” of UK environmental protection. Local people also joined the protest due to their anger at the state of the River Wye. Pat told me the pollution of the river is “absolutely awful” and the authorities “should be held accountable for it.” Liz, from Bristol, told me she was at the protest because she was “really concerned” about the River Wye but also rivers “generally”. 

From speaking to the many campaigners and local people at the protest, it is clear that people have had enough of the authorities doing nothing to protect not only the River Wye but also rivers across the country. They want both the EA and Defra to do their jobs and get a grasp of the situation that has been allowed to dramatically worsen over decades. 

For me, watching the protest unfold with more people joining and passionate about saving the River Wye, it was really inspiring to see. It showed the hard work of River Action activists in spreading the word of their case and plight to save the river, and how the public can make a change if we all come together and raise our voices loudly. 

Even if the case doesn’t go the way River Action, campaigners and local people want it to, it will still be a day that will be remembered as everyone coming together and showing how the public are not going to back down in the fight to save the River Wye or rivers in general from pollution whether it be agricultural or sewage discharges. The evidence presented in court by Mr Wolfe was strong; for example, he showed how the EA had found levels of phosphorus in a particular farmer’s fields to be 10 times over permitted limits due to manure spreading. 

He said when there have been breaches, the EA had failed to require fixes, with no timeline given to become compliant and farmers were not told they were in breach of the law. I found what he said to be quite damning for the EA and it is clear that there is conflict between the statutory guidance issued by Defra and the FRfW - as well as the EA’s interpretation of this guidance. 

A few times the judge asked the EA and Defra to clarify points when the barristers were presenting their defence. For example, the judge at one point was puzzled by regulation 15 of the FRfW in which Defra “may issue guidance” to the EA “in respect of its enforcement of the FRfW” and the EA “in the exercise of its functions, is required to have regard to any such guidance.”

The judge said it was the “elephant in the room” as it “gives rise to a different interpretation of the regulation” as the EA also follows the statutory guidance that tells it “about criteria that they [sic] should consider when they assess if they [sic] should take enforcement action under the regulations”. The EA’s barrister Mr Streeten responded that it is the “inevitability of the guidance.”

Defra’s barrister, when presenting its defence, mentioned that the statutory guidance is “broad in any case”. The judge quickly responded: “If I am a farmer I don’t want to hear that. How is it helpful to have statutory guidance which does not reflect the practice of the regulator?

“From the side of the table of someone who is trying to comply with the regulations, how do I know if I am in breach of the regulations or not? Was it intentional that statutory guidance should incorporate elements that do not reflect the EA’s understanding of the regulations?”. Defra’s barrister fumbled here, responding: “I don’t know the answer, I can check before I sit down.” Later Mr Westway said he was unable to answer the Judge’s question. 

During these points it was clear to me that there are flaws in the statutory guidance and regulations, and the EA’s interpretation of these. It gave a feeling of optimism for River Action’s legal case. The outcome of the Judge’s decision will likely be made in a couple of weeks' time.

Overall, by speaking to protestors, hearing and watching the court case, seeing how passionate people are to save the River Wye, it demonstrates that the public will not sit back and continue to see rivers decline even more than they have done. There is a movement and a boycott growing of the people against government authorities. People are withholding the sewage element of their water bills; and activist, Jo Bateman from Devon is taking South West Water to court over its pollution of her local beach.

The authorities have failed to do their job and protect our precious waterways. The health of our rivers keep declining as damning statistics and figures continue to show from latest research and it is now something the public are not going to let the water industry get away with. River Action’s legal case shows this as well as the support that it has gained, angry social media posts from the public, petitions created and campaigns started. The fight against river pollution will continue. 

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