The Environment Agency (EA) has been taken to the High Court over claims it failed to protect the River Wye from agricultural pollution.
River Action said the EA was allowing destructive levels of nutrients from organic manure to enter the river.
An estimated 20 million chickens are raised in the River Wye basin at any one time, around 25% of UK poultry production.
The EA said they are “working hard” and have taken steps to restore the area.
A large amount of organic manure was spread on the land to facilitate the rapid growth of the poultry industry near the river, which has led to a substantial increase in soil phosphorus levels.
When washed into the river by rainwater, phosphorus causes sustained algal blooms that suffocate plants and wildlife by sucking up all the oxygen and turning the water a dull green.
River Action, which has applied for judicial review against the EA, said that although the Wye has been designated a Special Area of Conservation, the algal blooms have destroyed 90% of the river’s buttercup, a family of aquatic plants.
In June 2020, an unprecedented algal bloom stretched more than 140 miles, nearly the entire length of the river, he said.
A Lancaster University study released in May 2022 found that 60 to 70% of the river’s phosphorus now comes from agriculture and 3,000 tonnes of it enters the river each year, accumulating at a rate of nearly 3 (17 kg) per hectare when the national average is just over 1° (7 kg) per hectare.
Charles Watson, chairman and founder of River Action, said: “The severe ecological collapse of the iconic River Wye is one of the great environmental scandals of our times.
“The sickening tragedy is that this could have been seriously mitigated if EA had enforced existing environmental regulations to prevent the over-application of animal waste to land that was already saturated with nutrients.
“The irony is that the same government that introduced these regulations is giving EA explicit guidance not to enforce them. This illegal conduct of EA must stop now.”
Statutory guidance from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), in which the EA operates, says land managers should avoid spreading manure during a crop rotation that increases phosphorus in the soil above a certain level unless it is not reasonably practicable to do so or they have taken all appropriate precautions to prevent any widespread agricultural pollution.
River Action said that because crop rotations take place over several years, this approach fails to protect the river and accused EA of “slavishly” following the guide at the expense of enforcing rules designed to protect the river.
He said the EA failed to enforce agricultural water rules, which prohibit the application of “organic manure or manufactured fertiliser” to farmland in a way that would raise nutrient levels above what is “needed by the harvested and to the ground”.
The charity also said the EA breached the habitat regulations by failing to enforce the rules to meet its requirements.
Ricardo Gama, an environmental lawyer who represents River Action through the firm Leigh Day, said: “The Agriculture Rules for Water were introduced in 2018 specifically to address agricultural pollution in rivers like the Wye.
“But from the documents we’ve seen, it’s clear that EA is choosing to apply the rules in a way that is inconsistent with their interpretation of how the rules should work.
“This means that manure – essentially an industrial waste product from meat and dairy production – can flow into our waterways with impunity.
“Our client hopes this statement will force EA to reevaluate their approach and start enforcing the rules correctly.”
The EA said it was working hard to restore the health and ecological status of the River Wye, including through increased monitoring and increased farm visits focusing on high-risk locations and previously non-compliant activities.
He added: “Last year we received extra funding to undertake more inspections and nationwide as of April 1, 2021 we have visited nearly 5,000 farms and requested over 77,000 actions from farmers to address agricultural pollution.
“Agriculture regulations for water are just one of many regulations we use as part of our consultative regulatory approach with farmers to protect water quality and nature.
“If we find pollution or a significant risk of pollution, we will not hesitate to take further action, as evidenced by the enforcement action taken against 140 farms this financial year.”