Dr Rob Collins
March 2023

The state of UK rivers: Confronting a perfect storm

Floods, droughts, sewage, agricultural runoff, hazardous chemicals, straightened concrete banks, barriers and invasive non-native species – our rivers face a perfect storm of pressures that undermine their health and resilience. Only 36% of UK surface waters (rivers, lakes and coastal waters) are currently classified as being in high or good status, whilst a pitiful 14% of English rivers are in good ecological status and not a single one has attained good chemical status. Not surprisingly the global decline in freshwater species is acutely reflected in UK rivers, with salmon stocks at their lowest levels on record.

The poor state of UK rivers also raises implications for human health. Freshwater recreation has never been more popular; however, swimmers, kayakers, sailors and the like are all potentially exposed to sewage, chemicals and toxic algal blooms, whilst the consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish also raises concerns. Additionally, the dire state of our rivers has economic costs that include the requirement for expensive treatment to remove pollutants from raw drinking water sources.

Not enough and too much water

The balance between water demand and availability reached a critical level in many areas of the UK last summer, arising from the drought conditions but exacerbated by unsustainable over-abstraction. Markedly reduced river flows, depleted lakes, reservoirs, and aquifers, and the drying up of wetlands were all widely reported. Not only were drinking water supplies interrupted and crop production hit, but our freshwater ecosystems were severely impacted too, including fish and bird life that may take years to recover.

During the worst period of the drought, some parts of the country experienced flash floods as high intensity rainfall fell on to impervious roads and pavements, in one instance overwhelming a pumping station causing the discharge of sewage into a town. Flooding continued through the autumn, impacting transport networks and power supplies, all whilst the availability of water across much of the country remained very low. This seeming paradox is, however, entirely in line with climate change predictions that tell us, worryingly, that both droughts and floods will become increasingly more frequent and severe in the future; the 2022 drought will become the new normal.

Pollution is ubiquitous

Thousands of pollutants can be found in our rivers including nutrients, microbes – encompassing bacteria resistant to antibiotics – hazardous chemicals, metals, pharmaceuticals, and plastics, derived from several sources including agriculture, industry, transport and our homes. Some pollutants run off fields, others from roads and pavements, directly to watercourses. Others are discharged to a wastewater treatment plant where they are partially treated before being discharged to rivers or applied to agricultural land within sewage sludge. The sewerage system is overloaded and unable to cope with the increasing pressures of housing development, heavier rainfall, and a profusion of non-biodegradable waste clogging up the system. As a consequence, storm overflows discharge pollution, including raw sewage, directly to rivers; in 2021 there were more than 470,000 of these discharges in England and Wales, which spilled for a total of 3.5 million hours.

The cocktail of chemicals found within our rivers causes a range of chronic and acute effects upon aquatic life including on growth and reproduction. Among the most alarming of these is that of  intersex or feminisation of male fish caused by chemicals that disrupt hormone systems.

Water quality and water quantity are closely interlinked. The lack of water during last summer’s drought considerably worsened water quality as less water was available to dilute the pollution that continued to discharge to our rivers. Similarly, floods bring the risk of sewage pollution in homes and businesses as systems are overwhelmed.

Nature-based solutions

Whilst hard engineered flood defences and stormwater tanks will still be required to address our riverine crisis, nature-based solutions need to be much more widely implemented in both rural and urban environments. These include wetlands and ponds, woodlands, riparian buffer strips, smart soil management and sustainable urban drainage. These features all act to hold water back, helping it to slowly infiltrate thereby building up stores on land, in soil and groundwater, preventing it from discharging rapidly to the river network. As a result, nature-based solutions not only reduce flood risk, they also slow the release of water back to the river, buffering it in times of drought and ensuring sufficient baseflow to support the freshwater ecosystem. Moreover, they trap and attenuate pollutants, preventing them from reaching the river network and improving water quality. The creation of nature-based solutions in our towns and cities also provide opportunities for local communities to access nature with proven benefits for health and wellbeing. The provision of such features in areas with high levels of deprivation will also help to support the Levelling Up Agenda.


Greater investment from water companies will be required to fix our rivers, from tackling storm overflows, and upgrading wastewater treatment works to addressing leakage in water supply pipes. But agriculture remains the greatest source of river pollution through eroded soil, slurry and agrichemicals. The Government’s new Sustainable Farming Incentive can play an important role here, through ensuring that farmers can quantify nutrient levels in their soils, to ensure optimum levels of fertiliser are applied - but the scheme must be backed with sufficient funding and ensure that it is targeted at those areas where it is needed the most.

Private investment can also play an important role, and increasingly the agricultural supply chain including multi-national corporations, is providing funds to ensure a more sustainable approach to land management that is good both for the farm business and the environment. The Rivers Trust has led a pioneering approach to address flood risk in North West England, by securing green finance from investors to deliver natural flood risk management which can be paid back over several years by a range of organisations that will benefit from reduced flood risk and other outcomes arising from the project. The approach can be replicated elsewhere to help make a step-change towards a more sustainable management of land and water.

Towards a strategic approach to land and water management

There are a plethora of plans pertaining to freshwater and land management including the Government’s 25-year Environment Plan, River Basin Management Plans, Flood Risk Management Plans, and Landscape Recovery Plans. Currently, however, these are implemented in a siloed fashion and opportunities for synergistic outcomes are missed. We need long-term strategic planning at a river catchment scale that adopts a holistic approach and draws upon mapped opportunities for delivery of multiple benefits including pollution prevention, flood protection, nature recovery, and carbon sequestration. A collaborative approach is key and the Catchment Based Approach partnerships provide the framework to convene a wide range of stakeholders, including water companies and Local Authorities, and to catalyse action.  In the North West of England a European Union funded LIFE project Natural Course brings together the Rivers Trust, Environment Agency, United Utilities, Greater Manchester Combined Authority and Natural England in a unique partnership approach that provides a template for successful collaboration at a river basin or regional scale nationwide.

Improving the evidence base

Resource constraints mean that regulatory monitoring of the water environment by the Environment Agency has been progressively diminished over the last decade. As a result, the monitoring of potentially hundreds of new emerging pollutants, including ‘forever chemicals’, is limited and our ability to prioritise action on several issues hampered. To this end, data gathered locally by citizen scientists can play a key role in improving our evidence base.  To date, the ability of such initiatives to provide a weight of evidence and to trigger action has been limited by the lack of a harmonised monitoring approach. To address this, the Rivers Trust is working with 24 partners, including 12 water companies, on a transformational project to monitor our water environment more effectively. It is creating a radical step-change in the contribution of Citizen Science and Community Monitoring and will enable a national framework to standardise and share integrated data and build the much-needed evidence base for improved decision-making about our water environments.


About the Author

Dr Rob Collins is Director of Policy and Science at The Rivers Trust with project management responsibilities encompassing the delivery of nature-based solutions, addressing chemical pollution, and flood risk management. He also has a key role in driving collaborative water management across England under the Catchment Based Approach.