Level-headedness needed to tackle phosphate levels in all Welsh rivers

CLA Cymru's Charles de Winton is working with Natural Resources Wales and other bodies to understand the sources of high phosphate levels in Welsh rivers, and mitigate the impacts
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Blue-green algae on a South Wales inland water-body

Eutrophication of rivers and inland waterbodies, caused by high phosphate (P) levels, has ignited an intense – occasionally emotional - debate about sources of the damaging compounds and what action to take. In addition to environmental concerns, authorities’ commitment to cease any “P-level” increase has included the near cease of development in the most vulnerable areas affecting both commercial and residential planning applications.

CLA Cymru is directly involved, representing land managers and rural businesses, Rural Surveyor, Charles de Winton says, “Farmers and land managers do want to play their part in protecting the environment and, of course, are already subject to regulation, including this year’s Agricultural Pollution Regulations. At the same time, the health of our inland waters is vitally important to their businesses – not only in producing food, but also additional activity in tourism, angling and watersports. The Welsh Government itself might be frustrated by a stop in development in the context of its “Future Wales” planning policy, which looks to address major issues such as the housing crisis.

Since stricter P-targets were set in January, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) has reported the highest phosphate levels in the Usk, where 88 per cent of its water bodies failed to meet the target, and also the Wye and Cleddau systems where 60 per cent failed. In fact, it was shown that phosphate levels breach standards in about two-thirds of our river systems, pointing to a national problem which receives most intensive focus in the South East. Key North Wales river systems – the Eden, Gwyrfai and Glaslyn as well as the Tywi – showed levels that did not meet the threshold.

Charles continues, “Under the spotlight are land management practices such as intensive agriculture, notably poultry. However phosphate level comparison between river catchments where agriculture types differ, poses questions about some intense agricultural activity as a source. An area still to be properly understood, is the slow release resulting from build-up of insoluble phosphates from historical agricultural applications. In this sense could the phosphate challenge be a legacy issue?

Really puzzling is the fact that that the Usk catchment area – mostly within National Park land under the highest levels of protection – seems to suffer from the most severe phosphate problem

Charles de Winton, CLA Cymru, Rural Surveyor

“Other potential sources are water-treatment and sewerage systems – including septic tanks – Foul water contains detergents (high in phosphates), and food waste.

“Phosphates are to be expected in our water-bodies as naturally-occurring from, for example, bank-side erosion and even decomposition of vegetative material. NRW itself says that a blanket solution wouldn’t work and they have committed to work with critical partners in many local actions which will make up a national response. A priority for us will be to ensure that authorities’ responses are timely, proportionate and based on clearly discernible results.”