Rivers, wetlands, and waters around the UK are being damaged by water pollution, putting habitats and wildlife at risk, a report has warned.
The report from a partnership of environmental charities including the RSPB, the Rivers Trust and the National Trust warns water bodies are being harmed by agricultural waste, raw sewage and pollution from abandoned mines.
In England, only 14% of rivers meet standards for good ecological status, less than half make the grade in Wales and only 31% of water bodies in Northern Ireland are classified as good or high quality.
Protected sites are among the areas hit by poor water quality, harming key wildlife such as otters, the swallow-tail butterfly and salmon which depend on them.
A survey of people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland conducted as part of the report found 88% agreed that freshwater habitats were a “national treasure” and many visit lakes, streams and rivers for a range of activities – including wildlife spotting.
The report calls for better monitoring and sufficient resources for government agencies to enforce the rules on pollution.
It also demands a transition to more nature-friendly, sustainable farming practices, legally-binding targets for wildlife and freshwater, and moves to stop untreated sewage reaching rivers.
RSPB deputy director of policy Jenna Hegarty said: “It is no surprise so many people think of our waterways as a national treasure and revel in the magical sight of otters playing in our streams, dragonflies hovering like jewels above our lakes and the vibrant flash of kingfishers in flight.
“But nature is in crisis and the incredible freshwater wildlife people marvelled at as they explored our countryside this summer is a fraction of what should be there.
“It is disturbing how it has become so normal for our waterways to be polluted and contaminated, and that many people do not realise there is something wrong.
“Governments must demonstrate leadership and act with urgency and ambition to bring our waterways back from the brink of collapse and revive our world.
“Without this, some our best-loved species face an increasingly uncertain future.”
The report highlights seven case studies, ranging from the Norfolk Broads to the River Wye, Cardigan Bay in Wales and Upper Lough Erne in Northern Ireland, which have been designated as sites of special importance for nature – but which are suffering from water pollution.
Ali Morse, water policy manager at the Wildlife Trusts, said: “Protected rivers like the Wye should be the ‘jewels in the crown’ of our natural world, alive with delicate aquatic plants, magnificent salmon and the elusive otter.
“But pollution is devastating these special places and putting the wildlife they harbour at risk.
“People are fed-up with the lack of action to address these problems and growing numbers are calling for this abuse of our treasured freshwaters to end.”