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The sorry state of our water environment

Last week Blueprint submitted a response to a major Environment Agency consultation asking for views on the key pressures affecting our water environment, and how they can best be tackled.

May 2020

Managing the freshwater environment is indeed a tricky balance; we expect our waters to support wildlife, provide drinking supplies, take away wastewater, and avoid flooding our homes. Our rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters are the subject of targets to bring them into ‘Good Ecological Status’ – contributing to a near-natural state, where they can provide the things our society needs whilst also supporting wildlife; their use would be sustainable.

But currently, few waters are thought to achieve that status. We await the publication of updated data to tell us how our waters currently fare, but the picture is unlikely to be positive. The Catchment Data Explorer web-portal which houses this data gives figures for up to 2016, and an Environment Agency Report on Water Quality confirmed for example that, by that year, 86% of river water bodies had not reached good ecological status.

We do not know whether the picture has improved since then, but figures in the consultation documents tell us that large proportions of waters remain impacted by physical modification (41%), pollution from agriculture (40%) and pollution from wastewater (36%) in particular. So whilst there may have been improvements in particular elements at particular locations, we don’t expect the overall picture to be much improved since 2016 – if at all. Even just preventing our waters from deteriorating further is a challenge; we are running to stand still. And given that the target set by the legislation that established this framework was to bring 100% of waters into good status by 2027, we have a mammoth challenge ahead of us.

If there is a bright side to this, it is that publication of the data will likely drive much greater interest in the state of our waters. And that’s positive, because to make more significant progress towards these targets will require wide-ranging support for the step-change we need to achieve in how we manage the water environment. This means:

• Regulation that is fit for purpose, including: better water efficiency standards within building regulations; enforcement of land management regulation particularly around water pollution from soils, pesticides and slurry; an enhanced approach to the regulation of chemicals; and the faster removal of licences which allow unsustainable abstraction. These changes would provide a baseline from which to build.
• Greater investment in nature-based solutions. This should include a focus on soil management (both to prevent polluting runoff and to increase water infiltration to reduce flood risk). Support and advice available to farmers through a new Environmental Land Management scheme will enable land managers to protect and enhance watercourses, wetland habitats & peatlands to reduce pollution, reduce flood risk, preserve carbon stores and protect water supplies; all essential public goods. Greater use of treatment wetlands to tackle discharges from wastewater treatment plants and abandoned mines will also play a role.
• Greater public and stakeholder engagement to help tackle key issues, including the need to reduce water consumption, and to prevent the spread of invasive non-native species - both of which are key threats to the water environment and the services we derive from it. Considering issues like these on a catchment scale makes the greatest ecological and economic sense, and can ensure that the right people and organisations play a part.

We must also be aware that the threats and pressures discussed in the consultation do not only affect those waters for which status information exists. The freshwater environment is additionally made up of flushes, ponds, headwater tributaries, small lakes, fens, reedbeds, wet woodlands and other wetland habitats that all play a role in the effective functioning of the freshwater environment, and in supporting the biodiversity that our waters are home to. In order to tackle the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity collapse that threaten our environment and our futures, we must shift approach - bringing not only our monitored waters into better condition, but taking a strategic approach to the improvement of the freshwater environment as a whole.

In line with the aspirations of Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan, we need to take action across the whole suite of freshwater habitats, planned and delivered strategically as a key component of an effective Nature Recovery Network. Because we do not believe that ‘clean and plentiful water’ and ‘thriving plants and wildlife’ can truly be achieved if we don’t.

Read our full response here.

Ali Morse, Water Policy Manager, The Wildlife Trusts

Twitter: @WildlifeTrusts