How healthy are our rivers?

Under the Water Framework Directive, a piece of U.K. legislation, there is a target to get all rivers and lakes into ‘good’ status.

Currently, none of the rivers in England and Wales meet this standard due to the presence of chemicals.

The ‘ecological status’ focuses on biological water quality, ecology and physical habitat. The Environment Agency classify river sections from ‘good’ to ‘bad’ based on monitoring data. Only 45% of river sections in West Cumbria achieve ‘good’ status, with diffuse pollution from agriculture, historic mining and channel modifications being the main issues. Scroll down to find out more about the issues, they ways the Partnership is addressing them and a map of issues across West Cumbria.


Our rivers face a number of issues that we need to addressed if we are to meet our vision of healthy water environments that provide for people and wildlife.

Flooding – puts life and livelihoods at risk

Flooding is a result of weather conditions and is predicted to get more frequent and severe as a result of climate change. The way catchments and rivers are managed can also affect flood risk:

  • Soils that have been compacted hold less water;
  • A lack of tree and vegetation cover and more impervious surfaces cause faster runoff;
  • Straightened river channels carry water more quickly to towns and villages.

Flooding near Keswick © Val Corbett

Drought – affects agriculture, drinking water supply, industry and wildlife

Drought is a result of weather conditions but can be made worse by the way land and waterways are managed.

The same factors that lead to flood waters running off the land very quickly – lack of trees, compacted soils, impervious surfaces, rivers that have been diverted to sit above their floodplain and drained wetlands – also mean there is very little water stored, making the area less resilient to drought.

Drought can also be made worse by over-abstraction of water – water taken from the environment for human use (e.g. drinking, irrigation and industrial use).

Bitter beck near Cockermouth in June 2018

Poor water quality – Puts drinking water and livestock at risk, compromises recreation and negatively affects wildlife

Water pollution comes from many sources.

Diffuse pollution is found in general water runoff from the land. In rural areas diffuse pollutants include fertilisers, silt and manure and in urban areas include chemicals from roads and construction sites. Individually these are often minor but collectively they have significant negative effects. Diffuse pollution can be made worse by poor land management practices.

Point source pollution comes from a single source such as a waste water treatment works or faulty septic tanks. Wastewater can contain high levels of nutrients and harmful bacteria and viruses. Disused mines can also be a source of pollution if they discharge heavy metals or acid pollution.

Pipe with growth of sewage fungus

Poor habitat quality – affects wildlife and recreation

Many of our rivers have been modified by:

  • Their course being straightened
  • Dredging
  • Installation of structures such as dams, weirs and culverts

These modifications can remove or damage important in-stream habitats and prevent fish being able to migrate through a river.

Changes to river banks such as removing vegetation or trampling by livestock can result in the river habitat becoming unsuitable for a range of wildlife.

More broadly, some land management practices damage or remove important habitats such as woodlands and wetlands.

Species not native to Britain, introduced by humans, outcompete or otherwise harm native wildlife. These ‘invasive non-native species’ include signal crayfish, mink, Himalayan balsam, Japanese knotweed and New Zealand pigmyweed.


Straightened course of Whit beck, near Lorton, before remeandering

How we’re addressing the issues

Strengthening flood defences to reduce flood risk

Building flood walls or other engineered defences can be the most effective method to reduce flooding of houses and businesses in towns. This work is the responsibility of the lead local flood authority (the Environment Agency or Cumbria County Council).


Natural flood management to reduce flood risk

Restoring or mimicking natural processes that store water in the landscape or slow the rate of runoff can reduce flood risk to towns and villages. This includes creating ponds and swales, adding leaky dams into streams, tree planting and improving the condition of soils.


Farm advice and improvements to improve water quality and habitat

Poor farming practices can lead to pollution. Simple changes such as fencing off watercourses from livestock, separating clean and dirty water from the farmyard and reducing bank erosion can improve water quality and save the farm money. Farm advisors offer advice and fund projects to improve management of watercourses, soil and fertilisers.


Restoring natural river systems to enhance habitat and reduce the risk of flood and drought

Historically, rivers have been straightened but this means water is channelled quickly down to towns and increases flood risk as well as removing natural habitat. We restore rivers’ natural processes by reinstating meander bends, reintroducing river features and removing weirs.


Restoring natural catchments to enhance habitat, reduce the risk of floods and droughts, improve water quality and store carbon

  • Our landscape has lost a lot of its habitat diversity. Woodlands, wetlands, ponds, peatlands and heath are important and rare habitats that have been damaged or lost by drainage, burning or overgrazing.We restore habitats at a range of scales from replanting hedgerows to renaturalising whole valleys. Woodland creation and peat bog restoration projects are underway across our area.


Wastewater treatment improvements to improve water quality

United Utilities are the water company in this area. They have a statutory responsibility to ensure water treatment works are not polluting and undertake a programme of improvement works.

We also work with residential properties and businesses that are not linked to main sewage networks by providing advice on maintaining septic tanks or package sewage treatment works so they do not cause water pollution problems.


Tackling non-native invasive species to enhance habitat quality

Many species introduced to Britain by humans (non-native species) spread rapidly and outcompete or harm our native wildlife. Himalayan balsam, mink and signal crayfish are examples present in our catchments. We work to eradicate these species and stop their spread by raising awareness among water users and promoting good biosecurity.


Protecting endangered species

Some species in our area are rare and endangered, identified as priority species in UK law. These include salmon, eels, lamprey, freshwater pearl mussels, water voles and otters. Species-specific habitat improvements, reintroductions and captive breeding are underway to safeguard endangered species.