If you could ask a river what it thinks about what the human race is doing to it the answer is likely to be pretty damning.

Every river in England is polluted and fails on chemical standards. Those in the rest of the UK are a little better, but not by much. Only a tiny fraction of our rivers flow unimpeded: the overwhelming majority are interrupted by dams, weirs or locks for navigation. River channels are straightened, funnelled between flood banks or encased into concrete culverts. So it’s no wonder that even the most important rivers designated for nature conservation are suffering. In England, 89.7% of all riverine SSSIs are in unfavourable status. In Wales it’s 60%, and 36% in Northern Ireland. Across the UK we’ve lost 90% of our wetland habitats over the past 100 years.

At the Institute of Water’s Environment Conference (“Cry me a river”) at the end of May we heard why our freshwater environment is in such a poor state. Sewage pollution coats river beds in fungus, adds nutrients that cause algal blooms (pictured) in some of our most iconic rivers, and inputs pathogens that can affect the health of swimmers and canoeists.

Uncontrolled runoff from roads and urban areas discharges a cocktail of pollutants which damage aquatic ecosystems. Abandoned mines spill acidic water laden with iron and heavy metals. And phosphorus from agriculture, derived from fertilisers as well as animal manures, can have an impact that lasts decades because of the way in which it behaves in the natural environment, creating a legacy effect and transferring impact over a wide area. Excessive abstraction is drying up chalk streams, a globally rare habitat of which some 80% are in England. And then there’s the impact of climate change, affecting river flows and temperatures…

Leading national and international academics and practitioners painted a sorry picture to delegates. But to set the scene, and lend weight to their specialist expertise, the conference opened with an authoritative overview from the Rt Hon Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow and Chair of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee. In conversation with Kirsty Ayres, an IWater young professional, Philip set out the stark conclusions from the EAC’s inquiry into river water quality. The report is a sobering read.

It would be tempting to conclude that what we are facing is a series of technical challenges that we can address through technical solutions, and so halt and reverse the decline.  But that’s the simplistic approach which, time and again, has been tried and has failed to do much more than maintain the status quo. So what do we need to do?

The answer came from Dr Dave Tickner, Chief Adviser on rivers at the WWF. Dave advocated that we should ‘think like a river’ and equip professionals to understand the multiple stressors that rivers are subjected to – and to understand that the mistake is to focus on just one. And that we need to think and act at a catchment scale, focusing on the long term recovery of the whole river system.

The chances are that what I’ve described above is resonating with you as a water professional. But not everybody shares our values, and so we need to learn how to tell a story that others will understand, and then want to be part of. Dr Mike Keil from the Consumer Council for Water explained that their research shows that people do care about the water environment, and have high expectations for it. But the technocratic approach often adopted by colleagues in the water sector doesn’t allow us to engage readily with consumers.

We need to develop skills beyond purely technical ones and learn how to join things up, and tell a good story. Because what we have is a great story; we just need to work to ensure that it has a happy ending. Or the generations that follow us will think we were fools.

Professor Ian Barker CEnv HonFSE FIWater

Vice President Environment

On World Water Day, the English and Welsh water regulator, Ofwat, has awarded £5.2m to innovative projects using new technology and cross-sector collaborations to improve water quality, reduce pollution and enhance services for consumers.  

Between now and the summer, the Water Breakthrough Challenge will award up to £39m to projects across England and Wales. The Water Breakthrough Challenge is part of a series of competitions from Ofwat, and run by Nesta Challenges with Arup and Isle Utilities, designed to drive innovation and collaboration in the sector to benefit individuals, society and the environment.  


13 projects will benefit from the first tranche of awards announced today, known as the “Catalyst Stream”.   


Several innovations to improve water quality have been awarded prizes. Severn Trent, working with California-based Microvi Biotechnologies and Cranfield University, has been awarded £760,000 to begin work on a “biocatalyst solution” that uses microorganisms that remove ammonia from wastewater without generating nitrous oxide emissions (a gas 300 times more potent than CO2).  


“Tapwater Forensics” from a consortium of seven water companies and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has been awarded £370,000 to meet its aim of establishing the UK as a leader in genetic sequencing of drinking water to revolutionise the ability to monitor and investigate water quality failures in the same way DNA testing revolutionised medicine and scientific research.  


And £446,000 has been awarded to “SuPR Loofah” by Northumbrian Water, Welsh Water, the University of Newcastle and the University of Northumbria. The project removes and recovers phosphorous run-off from agricultural fertilisers using engineered micro-algae. This prevents it causing damaging algal blooms and uncontrolled outbreaks of weeds in watercourses which can suffocate natural ecosystems. Phosphorous is an essential but finite energy-intensive chemical resource which is diminishing – this new circular approach would see it re-used as fertiliser in agriculture. It can also reduce imports of phosphorus for farming and its associated emissions from mining and transportation.  



In addition, projects that could contribute to preventing leaks from water pipes and sewers, and keeping associated repair costs down, have received £400,000. Yorkshire Water’s “Designer Liner” which can be retrofitted into existing water pipes, prevents leaks and extends the life of national water infrastructure. It in turn reduces the amount of water abstracted (i.e. removed) from watercourses which should also cut energy usage and costs to customers. 


Meanwhile, “Pipebots” from Thames Water, the University of Sheffield and Synthotech Ltd are robots that can monitor sewer rising mains from the inside. Too often, rising main faults only come to light should they burst. The robot monitors enable preventative inspections while the pipe is in use to minimise the risk of pollution spills by identifying faults before a pipe ever fails. 


Harry Armstrong, Director, Ofwat said: “It is great to see the water sector deliver more exciting and impactful projects through this round of Ofwat’s Water Breakthrough Challenge. The winners all have huge potential to benefit people, society and the natural environment. I’m excited to see these projects become reality and start to make a real difference in the way we do things.”  


Myrtle Dawes, Solution Centre Director of the Net Zero Technology Centre and chair of the Water Breakthrough Challenge Catalyst Stream judging panel said: “It’s a pivotal moment for the water sector – meeting the challenges of climate change head on and making good on promises of improved water quality across the water system at pace. There is no silver bullet to fix these challenges – they all require multiple approaches and solutions like those awarded funding today.” 



The Water Breakthrough Challenge is a £39 million competition, which aims to bring forward industry-leading innovation that deliver benefits for water customers, society, and the environment, split into two streams, the £5.2m Catalyst Stream and the Transform Stream which will award up to £34m. They are both part of Ofwat’s £200m Water Innovation Fund to grow the water sector’s capacity to innovate, enabling it to better meet the evolving needs of customers, society and the environment. The Transform Stream will award funding later in the spring. 


Both streams were open to initiatives aligned with one or more of Ofwat’s five strategic innovation themes. Initiatives submitted to the Catalyst stream were called on, at a minimum, to reach the stage of prototyping and testing some components of their solution with real users; while initiatives in the Transform stream should go beyond this and deliver tangible benefits for customers, society and the environment. The Transform stream winners will be announced later in the Spring. 


To find out more, visit waterinnovation.challenges.org. 

Better rivers will help bring about a better North West.  That’s the message from the region’s water company which has today published a series of commitments to kick start a river revival over the next three years.

The four-point plan sets out that United Utilities will:

  • make sure the company’s operations progressively reduce impact to river health
  • be open and transparent about its performance and plans
  • make rivers beautiful, supporting others to improve and care for them and
  • create more opportunities for everyone to enjoy rivers and waterways

Most of these pledges will be delivered over the next three years, including investment in wastewater systems, enhanced data monitoring and sharing, greater innovation and more use of nature-based solutions.

For example, at Southwaite in Cumbria a new wetland area is being created which will be able to treat any excess storm water that has to bypass the wastewater treatment works during heavy rainfall. As well as improving the local watercourse, a tributary of the River Eden, the wetland will improve wildlife habitat and create a more beautiful environment for local people.

United Utilities has committed to reduce the number of spills from storm overflows by at least a third, between 2020 and 2025. This will be supported through a £230m investment programme at sites across the region, leading to 184km of improved waterways. The company will also make sure that all storm overflows are monitored by 2023 and real time data on their operation is made available to the general public.

Jo Harrison, Environment, Planning and Innovation Director at United Utilities, said:  “As more people have come to appreciate the environment since the pandemic, there’s a real drive to improve our rivers and waterways. People want to swim, to enjoy riverside walks and get back to nature, and we have an important role to play by upgrading the sewerage infrastructure in the region.

“It’s a long term ambition, but we believe we can make some major improvements over the course of this decade, building upon the latest data that shows sewer spills have reduced by 28% between 2020 and 2021.

“But that’s only part of the solution; we can’t do this on our own. River health is affected by many factors so we’ve published this route map to show how we will get our own house in order and help others to get involved and work collaboratively. Ultimately, better rivers are better for everyone across the North West.”

Members of the public will be able to get involved with the plans that are promised. United Utilities will support local groups and authorities with new applications for inland bathing waters, and will also create further recreational clubs at its reservoirs. A community fund will be launched to support local river health initiatives and, working alongside The Rivers Trust, there will be the opportunity for people to volunteer as citizen scientists to collect data on river health which will help inform further improvement work.

Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust, said: “We welcome United Utilities’ focus on driving long term improvements in river health, creating new recreational opportunities and reducing the operation of combined storm overflows.

“United Utilities has been leading the industry with its approach to working in river catchments over the last 20 years and through our strategic partnership we hope to strengthen this significantly over the coming years, to ensure that real improvements in the North West’s rivers are delivered for everyone to enjoy.

“Our joint initiative with the help of citizen scientists to collate better data, provide transparency to the public and monitor progress is vital to success.”

United Utilities is also championing legislation to ban wet wipes that contain plastic and lobbying for a ban on all wet wipes that are not ‘Fine to Flush’.  Wet wipes are the scourge of sewer systems because they persist and build up to form blockages which reduce sewer capacity and increase the risk of spills into watercourses.

For further details about United Utilities’ commitments to improve river health in the North West visit: https://www.unitedutilities.com/our-commitments-to-river-health