INTENSIVE poultry units being built in Powys are just one of many reasons that could be contributing to failing phosphate levels in the River Wye, Natural Resources Wales has said.

Phosphorus pollution is known to cause the process of eutrophication in rivers, a highly problematic issue that causes excessive growth of algae, which smothers and blocks out light for other aquatic plants and animals.

The data shows that, because of stretching new targets, over 60 per cent of the River Wye and its catchments fail against new targets set.

But the review has not found evidence that chicken farms are directly responsible for the change.

Gavin Bown, head of Mid Wales operations for NRW, said: “There were concerns that phosphate levels were associated with poultry units, but we have not found a direct connection between the two elements.

“The reasons for failure on the River Wye and its tributaries are likely to be from a diverse range of sources, including mains sewerage and septic tanks, misconnections and agricultural practices.”

NRW has today published an evidence package outlining phosphate levels in the Wye, a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

Conservation standards were tightened as a means of safeguarding the river environment and countering the impacts of climate change. The targets for the River Wye SAC are aimed at achieving up to a four-fold reduction in some areas and tributaries.

The evidence package about phosphate levels in the Wye comes following concerns about algal blooms in the River Wye earlier this year which turned the river green.

Welsh Conservative Shadow Minister for Rural Affairs, Janet Finch-Saunders, had urged the Welsh Government to consider imposing a temporary moratorium on new intensive poultry units around the River Wye in October.

Mrs Finch-Saunders said that while she welcomed Natural Resources Wales was carrying out a detailed review of data to better understand the causes of increased algal blooms in the Wye, the review only came about after 77,000 people signed a petition to demand a moratorium on any new intensive poultry units in the area.

Mr Bown added: “NRW knows how passionate people are about safeguarding the health of the River Wye.

“We share that passion and strength of feeling and we’re committed to working with stakeholders along the course of the river to do all we can to improve the river’s health.

“The new targets set for phosphorus levels in the Wye are challenging – but rightly so.

“By sharing this information, we can all better understand how nutrient levels affect our rivers and we can work together with businesses, farmers and residents to protect the river and the natural resources it provides for local people.”

NRW will work with planning authorities in the Wye catchment – Powys County Council, the Brecon Beacons Natural Park and Monmouthshire – to help them understand what the findings of the investigation could mean for their planning processes.

The ultimate aim will be to ensure that any new development does not adversely affect phosphate levels in rivers. In practice this will mean that each and every project, plan or permit will have to demonstrate that they have a neutral, or better impact on reducing the phosphate levels in the Wye and its tributaries.

Phosphate is naturally occurring and is released slowly, at low levels, from natural sources, from natural bankside erosion, for example. However, phosphates can also enter rivers from land management practices, sewerage and foul water that can contains detergents and food wastes.

Ruth Jenkins, NRW’s head of natural resource management policy, said: “We all have a part to play to make sure that Wales’ rivers are healthy for future generations and we want to work with others to find innovative solutions.

“Each river and section of rivers may need different approaches and we will work with people locally to create local solutions.

“But the solution is not just about how we design developments and use land alongside our rivers. Simple changes we can each make in our everyday lives can help make a positive contribution to the reduction of phosphate levels and other forms of pollution affecting our rivers.”

Figures released earlier this year revealed that almost five times as many applications for chicken farms have been submitted in Powys than across the entire rest of Wales in the last three years.

Of the 96 applications submitted to Powys County Council, of which 75 have been approved, three have been refused and 18 were still in the process of being decided or still “active”. By contrast, only 20 applications were received by authorities across the rest of Wales in that time, of which 13 were approved.

With the increase in planning applications there are now believed to be 116 total intensive poultry units in the county, with ones that raise more than 40,000 birds requiring a permit. The figure includes 26 permitted poultry farms across the River Wye catchment, some of which may not yet be operational. There are many more units which have fewer than 40,000 birds and therefore don’t require a permit. With an estimated 8.5 million chickens on permitted units in Powys, it means there are 64 times more chickens than people in the county.