River water quality: our responses to your questions

We are asked questions every day about our work to protect Wales’ rivers, and below we’ve set out some responses to some of the most common questions.

Updated March 2024

Incident responses

How many incidents does NRW attend every year and will it remain at this level?

Incident management is a crucial part of our work. The range of incidents we deal with is broad – from floods to air, land and water pollution and from wildlife crime and land damage to other incidents where we act as advisors to the emergency services.

We cannot be at every river across Wales 24 hours a day. We rely on businesses and farmers to act responsibly, and for people to report sightings of pollution to us swiftly.

Annually we record on average 6,800 incidents and we assess all these according to their potential impact on the environment and our communities.

Our response is risk-based and proportionate within the resources available to us, and this means we can respond quickly to those incidents that are assessed as high impact. This is around 1,100 annually. Incident reporting has increased by 21% over the last 4 years.

We do also follow up on many incidents noted as lower impact, if resources and other priorities allow. This work allows local teams to identify trends and build up a picture of what’s happening locally over time.

How many of these incidents around water quality translate into prosecutions? Is NRW doing enough enforcement work?

We take a range of enforcement actions - ranging from advice and guidance, warning letters, notices to improve, formal cautions, and prosecutions.

Tracking the source of pollution isn’t always easy. Some of our rivers rise and fall quickly, allowing pollution to pass through the system in a flash. Additionally complex drainage and sewerage systems in populated areas can also make it incredibly difficult to trace the exact source of a pollution.

As with all prosecutions of any type, we cannot take a case to court unless our evidence can prove, without reasonable doubt, the person or business responsible.

Preventing incidents from occurring in the first place is our ultimate goal and is the best thing for the Welsh environment. By working with companies and individuals to do the right thing in the first place, we avoid environmental damage, costly investigations and court cases, allowing us to use our limited resources on more positive action.

Are the fines high enough?

Fines are the most common type of sentence given by the courts. The court follows the sentencing guidelines and sets the amount of a fine after considering how serious the offence is and how much money the offender can pay based on their income. NRW does not have involvement in setting any fines.

You measure bathing water quality around our coasts, how will you achieve the Welsh Government target of increasing the number of designated inland bathing waters?

NRW along with partner organisations and Welsh Government are examining the requirements and possibility of increasing the number of bathing waters in Wales with a focus on Inland designations. There are many components to consider but work is underway to identify potential inland bathing waters.

Do you do enough river monitoring?

Our resources for monitoring have reduced in recent years, reflecting public sector spending reductions.

We have recently initiated a review of our freshwater monitoring activity to clarify and prioritise future monitoring and evidence needs in the freshwater environment.

The review is looking across our water quality monitoring evidence needs, the design of monitoring networks and programmes, the methods we use, and how we collaborate with other evidence providers to make best use of the collective capability and resources.

This will ensure that we are making the best use of the resources we deploy to protect and improve water quality and will enable us to contribute to the Welsh Government’s Programme for Government commitment to strengthen water quality monitoring.

Storm overflows

You may wish to read some more about our work on storm overflows. You’ll find some statistics and what we’re doing to regulate the water companies

Why are you allowing water companies to dump raw sewage into rivers?

NRW issues permissions and licences to allow sewers to overflow during such weather conditions – particularly where there is a risk that the volume of water could overwhelm the pipes which could, in turn, cause flooding of homes and property. However, all discharges into water courses must comply with standards set within these licences.

We will continue to challenge water companies to improve performance, to work with them to ensure overflows are properly controlled, and to take strong and appropriate enforcement action where necessary.

We have a presumption against permitting new storm overflows. Only as a last resort and following extensive modelling will we grant a permit for a new storm overflow. In the past 5 years we have issued 124 overflow permits for new overflows with 314 permits being surrendered. Most of these permits will have been to replace sub-standard or unsatisfactory assets.

What will we do to stop this?

NRW is a key member of the Wales Better River Quality Taskforce, bringing together key players from Welsh Government, NRW, Dŵr Cymru, Hafren Dyfrdwy and Ofwat, with independent advice from Afonydd Cymru and the Consumer Council for Water.

The taskforce has collaboratively developed action plans to gather greater evidence on the impact of storm overflows on our rivers, to reduce the impacts they cause, to improve regulation and to educate the public on sewer misuse.

You can read more about the work of the Wales Better River Quality Taskforce on the Welsh Government website.

Are you too close to the water companies?

Water companies have a responsibility to the environment, as well as their customers, and they must take this issue seriously.

When these organisations do not meet those environmental expectations, be it through polluting activity or through a breach of permit conditions, we will not hesitate to take enforcement action.

We will continue to challenge water companies to improve performance, to ensure overflows are properly controlled, and to take strong and appropriate enforcement action where necessary.

In our most recent annual performance reports for both Dŵr Cymru and Hafren Dyfrdwy we outlined a number of improvements we need the companies to make.

Our report saw Dŵr Cymru downgraded from a four-star to a three-star company following an increase in pollution incidents, and decrease in self-reporting of incidents and compliance with environmental permits for sewage discharges.

You can read the reports in full on our website.

Ofwat is investigating some water companies in England? Will they be looking at companies operating in Wales too and is this a sign that NRW hasn’t done enough?

Ofwat has opened enforcement cases into five water companies in England. Currently there are no plans to open similar cases against Welsh water companies.

Although a water regulator, it has different functions to NRW. We are responsible for regulating water quality and ecological protection, whilst Ofwat plays a critical role in ensuring that water companies spend wisely on environmental initiatives, driving and enabling the water sector to protect and improve the environment.

Tackling pollution from agriculture

Agriculture is one of the culprits, what are we going to do about it?

Our Dairy project has seen us visit over 800 dairy farms to check slurry and silage storage and are now working through a programme to ensure that any non-compliant stores are bought up to the standards specified in regulations. Welsh Government has offered funding opportunities for farmers to invest in improved infrastructure. We’re now reviewing how the dairy project could be widened to cover the wider agricultural sector.

We are also looking at how to tackle high nutrient levels in catchments through a range of schemes to understand nutrient loadings, and farm scale management, modelling catchment behaviour, working with land managers on new approaches and developing innovative solutions such as the Project Slurry work at Gelli Aur.

The Code of Good Agricultural Practice is a practical guide to help farmers and land managers protect the environment in which they work. These set out how, where and when nutrients are applied to ensure they do not exceed crop and soil need, or give rise to a significant risk of diffuse pollution. They also require farmers to take reasonable precautions to reduce water pollution, such as keeping livestock out of watercourses and planting buffer strips where appropriate. Any breach of the regulations may result in an investigation and enforcement action.

The Wales Land Management Forum (WLMF) provides an opportunity for us and other WLMF membership organisations to share information, identify common interests and work together in a collaborative way on strategic land management issues.

We are advising and influencing the new Agri Bill for Wales and the replacement for the current land management support provided by Welsh Government - this will see payments for the delivery of public goods and services e.g good water quality.

Will the Agri regs make a difference?

The Minister laid the Control of Agricultural Pollutions Rules in January 2021. April 2023 sees introduction of large number of measures and we’ve been developing and delivering training and technical guidance prior to introduction of transition phases.

Rules are in place to protect water quality and nature, and it is essential that businesses observe them. The new control of agricultural pollution regulations will help us drive action to tackle nitrate pollution.

Whilst consistent and clear regulation is a key element, it is only when it is used in combination with advice, guidance, improving knowledge and skills as well as innovation and investment that we can expect to reduce the risk of all forms of agricultural pollution and protect our environment, whilst supporting farming to be a sustainable and thriving industry for the future

Will you introduce General Binding Rules (minimum standards) into the Agricultural (Wales) Act and fund a dedicated enforcement and advice team to implement?

NRW is working with Welsh Government officials as they develop proposals for the Agricultural Bill content. We have provided evidence on the effectiveness of our regulatory principles options, one of which is the use and outcomes of General Binding Rules.

Their introduction is, of course, a decision for Welsh Government to make.

Will you introduce the requirement for a full environmental permit for all Intensive Livestock Units (chicken and pig)?

We implement and enforce the current requirements of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 which currently sets thresholds for intensive rearing of pigs and poultry, below which an environmental permit is not required. Any changes in relation to livestock types and numbers is a matter for Welsh Government to consider.

Phosphate levels in SAC rivers

How have we allowed the phosphate situation to get as bad as it is?

We monitor the health of Wales’ rivers and last year we reported that over 60% of Wales’ Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) rivers are failing against their phosphate target. This is really important new evidence and critical information for decision makers across Wales.

This was the first time that phosphate levels were assessed against new and much more stringent targets than previously. Most of these rivers would have passed under the old target levels.

We wholeheartedly supported the change to more stringent targets because they better reflect where rivers needs to be to be healthy. We are doing everything we can to ensure that river health improves across Wales.

Read the full compliance report on our website.

View the updated water quality targets for nine SAC rivers.

How will we address the situation?

We all have a part to play and we need to drive discussions to find collective solutions about how we design developments and use land, as well as consider what we do in our everyday life that contributes to phosphorus levels.

Nutrient Management Boards have been established for the failing SACs to identify and deliver actions that deliver water quality improvements in the river SACs. 

They will use these reports, as well as other evidence and local information to prioritise work for each individual SAC.

At the Royal Welsh Show in the summer, Welsh Government committed to provide new funding to support the work of Nutrient Management Boards, with up to £415k being made available in 2022-23 with additional provision in 2023-24 and 2024-25.

Read more about the First Minister's pollution summit at the Royal Welsh Show.

Planning permissions have been halted in many catchments. What happens next?

We’ve established a working group made up of Local Authority Planners, the Planning Inspectorate, Welsh Government, Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, Home Builders Federation and NRW to consider the specific implications for the planning system.

We understand that the issues are complex and we are working with partners to make sure we provide the very best advice, including information about how to assess whether development proposals and local development plans may lead to increases in phosphorus discharges.

Planning Authorities need to be satisfied that new development proposals will not result in damage to a SAC. This is not a new requirement, but they do now need to make sure that any new developments don’t lead to additional nutrient contributions, which could impact on the conservation status of those rivers.

Read more about our Nutrient Neutrality Principles.

River Wye water quality

Has NRW failed in its duty to protect the river?

While work on the Wye and its tributaries in Wales has been extensive over recent years, this has not been sufficient to see the required 50-80% reduction in Phosphate required to meet these targets. Water quality on the River Wye is affected by pollution from farming, the water industry and urban areas and its future is under threat.

Over the summer we installed a suite of automatic monitors, called sondes, at six key points on the River Wye and its major tributaries to provide further evidence and target efforts to reduce nutrient pollution.

The monitors record key metrics, including temperature, oxygen levels, nitrates, algae and pH at 15-minute intervals, providing vital information on the quality of the water.

Is NRW working with EA & Natural England? And are we taking a consistent approach?

NRW, The Environment Agency, Natural England, water companies, farming industry representatives and other partners, are working together through a Nutrient Management Board to restore the River Wye to favourable condition.

Why do you continue to allow poultry units to be set up in the Wye catchment? Are you going back on what you said about not allowing more phosphate into the Wye?

Our decisions on whether to grant an environmental permit is completely separate from the planning process. Planning permission, given from the local planning authority, allows a site to be built. The planning process determines whether the development is an acceptable use of land and considers a broad range of matters such as visual impact, traffic and access, which do not form part of our decision-making process.

An environmental permit allows the site to operate once it has been built and regulates emissions from the ongoing activities.

Current regulations only require us to permit units with over 40,000 chickens. Poultry units with under 40,000 birds do not need an environmental permit from NRW but require permission from the local authority.

A new development will need to have both planning permission and an environmental permit before it can operate.

Have you issued a statement that states that Intensive Poultry Units are not linked to agricultural pollution in the River Wye?

We want to be clear about what we said in relation to poultry units and nutrient issues in the Wye catchment – what we have said is that we have not found any evidence for a direct connection between poultry farms and waterbodies failing SAC targets. This is not to say that poultry farms are not contributing to these issues. The reasons for failures on the river Wye and its tributaries are from a range of sources which does include agriculture and indeed subsequent source apportionment modelling work has shown this.

Our evidence report: Compliance Assessment of Welsh River SACs against Phosphorus Targets, found that the failures in parts of the Wye require action to address them. The report analysed data from the NRW routine monitoring programme against the JNCC phosphorus targets which are set as a 3 year average.

The overall pattern of failures found through the assessment of routine water quality monitoring data in the Wye does not support the hypothesis that poultry units are the cause of failures of the JNCC phosphorus targets failures on the Wye. This is because there is no direct relationship between the location of poultry units and the locations of failures.

To measure the ecological impact of the failures identified in the Phosphorus Compliance Assessment report, NRW is carrying out an intensive programme of diatom and macroinvertebrate sampling and analysis across the Wye in mid Wales this year (Spring and Autumn 2022). Diatoms are useful indicators of the impact of nutrient enrichment and macroinvertebrates are useful for assessing the general health of river ecosystems.

The aim of this survey work is to provide a more detailed understanding of the spatial location of different pressures, especially in relation to nutrients. The data and results will be used to inform work to reduce nutrient input as well as target the location of interventions on the Wye SAC as part of the River Restoration Programme.

Will you issue a detailed and staged action plan to work with all parties, including UK Government and the Third Sector, across the Wye catchment for England and Wales?

A detailed and staged plan (The Wye Phosphate Action Plan) already exists as part of the Wye Nutrient Management Plan.

This Action Plan applies to the whole of the River Wye catchment, in England and in Wales. The Action Plan has been reviewed and restructured in light of the recent case law and sets out the actions planned or further needed to reduce phosphate. Actions in the plan are divided into sections on point sources, diffuse sources, catchment-scale actions, monitoring, engagement, governance and reporting.

The Wye Nutrient Management Board, made up of the NRW, Natural England, Environment Agency, Herefordshire County Council, Powys CC, Brecon Beacons NPA, Monmouthshire CC, Dwr Cymru, as well as third sector bodies including the Wye and Usk Foundation oversees the delivery of this plan.

Will you be actioning a water protection zone (WPZ) across the whole catchment?

Water Protection Zones are existing mechanisms under the Water Resources Act 1991, to protect sensitive water bodies from the impacts of pollution and other harmful activities. In Wales, designating an area a WPZ is the responsibility of Welsh Ministers.

WPZs are an option if the weight of evidence suggests other measures and mechanisms will not achieve the required environmental standards.

Currently our effort is focussed on identifying causes of failure and seeking to address these by existing mechanisms. Through this process, evidence will be collated of the need for any additional regulation, such as WPZs.

Citizen science

You say you want to work with groups, what is your position on citizen science?

NRW has a long relationship with citizen science, particularly in biodiversity monitoring, where long-established schemes provide key evidence on the state of nature and inform policy and management. We work with a range of partners, including NGOs, to develop and implement biodiversity recording schemes.

We’re already exploring the potential of citizen science and collaborative partnerships alongside our own monitoring to contribute to the shared challenge of improving water quality including that of the River Wye.

On a wider perspective, NRW is exploring how we can work in partnership with others to develop a broader approach to evidence that allows us to make best use of such data, including understanding the status of our rivers, the pressures affecting them and how they change over time.

Read our Citizen Science acceptability assessment

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