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Ensuring a sustainable future for water

As the water clauses of the Environment Bill are debated today, Rhiannon Niven of RSPB discusses this vital opportunity to strengthen measures in the Bill, and the need for urgent action and ambition to maintain and enhance our water environment.

November 2020

Urgent action is needed to address the dismal state of our water environment. This week, MPs on the Public Bill Committee are debating the water clauses of the Environment Bill. Many of these clauses are welcome as they include various measures to protect our water environment, covering pertinent issues such as water resource management, water quality, and drainage and flood management.

The Committee must seize this opportunity to truly test and strengthen measures in the Bill to improve our natural environment.

The water clauses aren’t yet ambitious enough to address the prevalent issues impacting our precious water environments. We have significant concerns on the wide scope of the powers the Secretary of State is seeking to amend. These include the ability to potentially weaken regulations implementing the EU Water Framework Directive, reducing protections for our waters. These powers could allow the removal of safeguards for wildlife when creating land drainage and flood management measures, and remove clarity regarding minimum water efficiency standards. If this power is not tightened, there could be adverse implications for water quality.

We are also concerned that the measures outlined on abstraction, while welcome in principle, do not go far enough. As they stand, the clauses only provide the Environment Agency with the power to act on licences that are causing environmental harm, excluding anything more precautionary where potential harm can also be considered.

Nor is there a requirement for a more strategic overview of abstraction licensing. In addition, these measures would not kick into action until 1 January 2028. This is too far into the future. We want to see the measures brought forward to 2021 considering the current shocking state of zero waterbodies being in good condition and chalk streams drying up across the country, threatening the security of water supplies for nature and people.

With compensation remaining payable on any licence changes imposed by the Agency before that time, current and ongoing budget constraints will significantly limit the Agency’s scope to act. Abstractors with legacy licences are unlikely to give up their abstraction rights voluntarily and forfeit potential compensation payments. This means that over-abstracted rivers and groundwater-dependent habitats will continue to suffer for at least a further eight years, putting threatened habitats such as chalk streams and public water supplies at unacceptable risk.

Strong oversight will be vital to ensure full implementation of these clauses. The new watchdog, the Office for Environment Protection, must be truly independent with the necessary powers to hold all public authorities to account. A significant boost in resourcing for the Environment Agency and Natural England is also urgently needed, reversing painful budget cuts which have limited their ability to deliver on regulatory monitoring and compliance.

We also need strong targets for the environment to restore our natural environment. As a minimum, for water we want to see an ambitious long-term freshwater outcome target developed which is aimed at improving habitat quality by restoring catchments. This will go beyond the ‘pressures’ targets proposed by Defra on pollution from agriculture, wastewater and on water consumption.

The Government has a key opportunity to deliver the ‘world leading’ legislation we were promised and to deliver on its international environmental commitments to restore nature and create a resilient water environment into the future. If the government is serious about its repeated commitments to maintaining, and indeed enhancing, environmental standards, then it will wish to see this legacy enshrined in law. We would expect to see a commitment to non-regression of environmental standards, and a robust, transparent and ambitious framework for legally binding targets to drive nature’s recovery, including binding interim targets to ensure progress. All this needs to be backed up by the creation of a watchdog with actual teeth to hold the government to account.

Read the full asks on the water chapter of the Environment Bill here.

Rhiannon Niven is Senior Policy Officer at RSPB.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.