A Cabinet Commission set up by Herefordshire Council says the current voluntary system of controlling pollution in the River Wye has failed and "other forms of regulatory and monitoring schemes for farming practices" should be urgently explored.
The leader of The Cabinet Commission for Restoring the Wye, which this week presented its preliminary findings, has called for any scheme to call for the polluters to pay and to ensure a fair share of burdens is placed on participants.
In its progress report this week the commission says agriculture has been assessed as contributing more than 70 per cent of the phosphate pollution in the river catchment.
It says: "In order to achieve legal compliance in protecting the river, any scheme will need to deliver changes to farming practise over a sustained period of time."
As a result discussions have been taking place with representatives of the farming community about these schemes for some months. The next stage will be a ‘farmer to farmer’ consultation to explore whether consensus and commitment to a preferred scheme can be secured.
The Commission membership also includes the other three councils with responsibility for parts of the River Wye catchment area - Powys, Monmouthshire and Forest of Dean.
Presently river protection is provided through the delivery of a Nutrient Management Plan (NMP) overseen by the River Wye Nutrient Management Plan Delivery Board.
A Herefordshire Council statement said: "Following a review of these measures the conclusion reached is that the present voluntary activities do not provide the protection and actions needed to prevent further deterioration of the river’s Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and will not deliver river restoration."
More needs to be done, and the commission makes a number of recommendations.
One of these recommendations is that other forms of regulatory and monitoring schemes for farming practices are explored, as a matter of urgency, to rule them in or out as viable solutions to deliver certainty for the river.
"Viable schemes will be the subject of more detailed development work before a business case can be submitted to the UK and Welsh Governments - hopefully later this year," said the spokesperson.
Alongside the continued work of the commission, the NMB will also press water regulator Ofwat and the Environment Agency to encourage water companies to play their part in reducing phosphate pollution from their water treatment works – assessed as contributing more than 20 per cent of the river pollution.
Councillor Liz Harvey, chair of the Commission, said: “Any compliant scheme would have to meet the principles that ‘the polluter pays’ and ‘fair share’ in terms of the burden placed on participants.
"It is likely to take quite a while for any compliant scheme to be fully implemented.
"There is no quick fix to deliver full river restoration. It’s important we keep the momentum going which we’ve already built up - the sooner we get agreement on a workable solution, the earlier improvements can start to be made.”
The commission also proposes that the council and its statutory regulatory agencies - Natural England, the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales - agree to review and strengthen the existing Nutrient Management Plan and streamline the Delivery Board overseeing it.
Councillor Harvey continued: “It’s clear a more rigorous and regulated approach to monitoring the use of phosphates in the Wye catchment is required.
"The question still needing to be bottomed-out is can this be achieved voluntarily and collaboratively, or do we need to implement a Water Protection Zone with all the limitations such a regulated scheme would impose.
"Right now, the jury’s out on the question, but we are recommending that we test out the idea with farmers, regulators and government to see if a full WPZ can be avoided. The Commission will report further to Cabinet in July when, hopefully, the viable options will be much clearer. I would encourage all agencies and impacted stakeholders to work together on a joint plan for us to present to government”
Herefordshire Council has set aside £480,000 to ensure the work to progress a solution for the river can continue during 2023.