River Pollution

1. Questions to the First Minister – in the Senedd at on 11 June 2024.

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Photo of Mike Hedges Mike Hedges Labour

(Translated)

6. What assessment has the First Minister made of river pollution levels? OQ61222

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour 2:18, 11 June 2024

Thank you. The Welsh Government is taking an integrated catchment approach to combat river pollution, co-operating with all sectors involved. We work closely with other arms of Government, regulators and others, including through our river pollution summits. The next summit is in July, which I will co-chair with the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs.

Photo of Mike Hedges Mike Hedges Labour 2:19, 11 June 2024

Thank you for that answer. River pollution is a problem across Wales, with the Wye and Usk having serious problems with pollution. With the River Tawe, we have raw sewage discharge, agricultural pollution and microplastics. Agriculture is a leading cause of water problems globally. Fertilisers, pesticides and animal waste from farms and livestock operations can easily wash into rivers during rainfall, contaminating the rivers. Excess nitrogen and phosphorus in water is a significant threat to water quality. These nutrients can lead to algal blooms including toxic blue-green algae, which can harm both people and wildlife. I'm requesting the Government commissions an independent review of river pollution, starting with the Tawe, Usk and Wye.

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour

The Member raises an important point that I believe goes across party lines. Our challenge is how we take effective action to reduce river pollution that is an active problem for biodiversity within our rivers, but also affects land use as well. It's why the river pollution summit is such an important process. I've seen the evidence on the apportionment of phosphorus loading into rivers, and the evidence, which has been peer reviewed, does show it's rural land use that has the biggest impact. It's why we've got to have a conversation around this, not just with people that make use of rural land, but, actually, with a range of other sectors too. That's part of what the river pollution summit process allows us to do.

We're also going through Natural Resources Wales's fourth cycle of river basin management plans. That's a key mechanism for improving water quality. I do think, as we go through those, and we get to draft stages, it'd be worth having a conversation with the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs about whether there's an opportunity for independent peer review at that point around the plans. That's something that I think is well worth having a conversation about, between the Member and the Cabinet Secretary, to understand how we get some objectivity into not just what the plans are, but how effective they're likely to be and then how they get reviewed as they are implemented.

Photo of James Evans James Evans Conservative 2:21, 11 June 2024

First Minister, there is a worrying lack of accessibility when it comes to reporting pollution instances to Natural Resources Wales. Numerous constituents have contacted me about difficulty in reaching their enforcement teams, especially via the phone, with one person, when they finally got through, being told by Natural Resources Wales, 'We physically don't have the people here to respond to e-mails or answer telephone calls.' This communication barrier is undermining public confidence in the regulator's ability to tackle water pollution. So, can you outline what plans does the Welsh Government have to support NRW to address these communication issues, so when river pollution is seen, it can be reported and dealt with in a timely manner?

Photo of Vaughan Gething Vaughan Gething Labour

I think it's a fair point the Member raises about how members of the public can contact NRW and actually have a response that demonstrates that the issue they raise has been taken seriously, and then the ability of NRW as the regulator to be able to act on that information as well. There are always challenges about resources. It's an undeniable fact that, over the last 14 years, we have taken money out of services we'd rather invest in. I'm interested in what a new partnership would look like, but, equally, how we get the best out of the resources we have, which I think is really the Member's point in the Member's question. I'd be grateful if he'd write to the Cabinet Secretary for rural affairs and climate change to understand the particular issues his constituents have, to see if there is more we can do with NRW to make sure they're able to respond to the concerns that his constituents will raise. I'd expect that if his constituents are raising issues, then others will have similar concerns that we'd want to understand how we can take forward.