A JUDICIAL review into how the Environment Agency (EA) has allegedly failed to protect the River Wye from agricultural pollution has been granted by the High Court.

National environmental charity River Action argues the degradation of the health of the river and the resulting impact on vegetation and wildlife in recent years could have been mitigated against had the EA enforced existing environmental regulations.

Permission for a review into the EA’s enforcement was granted following a hearing at the High Court in Cardiff last Thursday (October 19).

The High Court will examine the EA regulations that govern the amount of organic manure and artificial fertiliser that can be spread on agricultural land, from which water runs off and leaches into the River Wye.

River Action says the Wye is heavily polluted because excessive amounts of animal manure are regularly spread across land within the river catchment, leading to a substantial increase in levels of phosphorus in the soil.

This then runs off and leaches into the river, causing widespread algal blooms along the length of the river system, turning the water an opaque green.

Algal blooms block sunlight, remove oxygen and cause widespread algal deposits across the riverbed, with severe consequences for the vegetation and wildlife of the river. 

A study by Lancaster University published in May 2022 found 60-70% of the river’s phosphorus now comes from agriculture - 3,000 tonnes of it are entering the river every year.

The group says there has been very rapid recent growth of the region’s intensive poultry industry.

The Wye was designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) to protect the river’s once-famous extensive Ranunculus river weed beds. However, according to River Action, over 90 per cent of the river’s Ranunculus have now been lost, smothered by algal blooms. 

River Action was given permission to argue its case on all three of its grounds:

- The Environment Agency has adopted an approach to enforcing the Farming Rules for Water (FRfW) that ultimately frustrates the purpose of the legislation it is supposed to enforce

- By slavishly following guidance issued by the Environment Secretary the Environment Agency has put itself in a situation where it is acting unlawfully

- The Environment Agency has breached regulation 9(3) of The Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 in that its policy on enforcement of the FRfW unlawfully fails to follow the requirements of the Habitats Directive

River Action’s chairman and founder Charles Watson said:

“We are delighted that we have now finally been granted permission to go to court, where we will vigorously make the case that a prime cause for the recent ecological collapse of the River Wye is the EA’s decision to slavishly follow DEFRA’s guidance to not enforce critical provisions of the 2018 Farming Rules for Water. These critically important regulations state that fertilisers and manures must not be spread on soils already over-saturated with excess nutrients. Tragically, due to the uncontrolled growth of what we believe to be the largest concentration of intensive poultry production in Europe, this is exactly what has been allowed to happen, with the horrific environmental consequences for the River Wye being all too plain to see.”

River Action is represented by Leigh Day environment team solicitor Ricardo Gama of law firm Leigh Day who added: “The Farming Rules for Water were put in place in 2018 exactly to address the issue of agricultural pollution in rivers, but the rules are pointless unless they are actually applied. The guidelines which the Environmnent Agency had given to its field officers would encourage them not only not to enforce against breaches of the rules, but not even to tell land managers that they are in breach when they are. Our clients believe that this approach to the rules might make the situation worse not better by encouraging bad practices. They look forward to a full hearing of the issues in the High Court.”