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To improve water quality, we need high quality environmental data

Jodie Le Marquand, Policy and Information Coordinator at Wildlife and Countryside Link, highlights the missing water data hindering efforts to improve the health of England’s waters.

August 2020

Over the past week, Link has published a series of blogs demonstrating the importance of environmental data, and its patchiness across England. Water data is another missing piece of the puzzle.

Blueprint for Water, a coalition developing solutions to the water issues facing England, has been eagerly awaiting the publication of data on the status of water bodies across England for months. This important data, which was expected earlier this year, would allow us to make strategic decisions and offer advice on the best route towards healthier waters - however it is still yet to be published.

The Environment Agency provides key ecological and chemical statistical data categorising our water bodies as high, good, moderate, poor or bad overall, in line with our continued commitments under the Water Framework Directive (WFD). WFD has provided a governance framework for managing and protecting our water bodies since 2000. This is not simply a rating based on water quality but far more than that. The Directive embeds a holistic approach to water health, including creating homes for iconic species and protecting unique habitats, such as chalk streams. With the rise in appreciation of blue spaces for communities, recreation and wellbeing throughout the pandemic, this holistic approach to water health is needed more than ever.

The Water Framework Directive states that all waterbodies must reach ‘good’ status by 2027 at the latest, yet the most recently-available assessment (from 2016) showed that only 14% of river waterbodies had achieved Good Ecological Status – and that we rank a disappointing 25th out of 30 EU countries in terms of progress towards achieving the WFD’s goals. We continue to support these commitments but emphasise that urgent action is needed to get back on track. It would be helpful to know how far off we are now, in order to assess what has worked - and what has not - and to strategically plan the steps needed to get to where we need to be. We fear delay on release of these statistics may lead to further delay in achieving target commitments. Comments about WFD in a recent speech from James Bevan, CEO of the Environment Agency, have added to doubts about high-level commitment to improving water quality.

As we continue our wait for up to date information on water quality, other statistics are yet to fill us with joy: In 2019 there were over 200,000 sewage discharges into UK rivers, all water companies are failing to meet the requirement to classify their combined sewage overflows in order to prioritise pollution-busting improvements, and salmon catch numbers are down dramatically. Using the information we do have available and attempting to put the pieces of this puzzle together ourselves, it doesn't look good.

Objective evidence is needed to make sound suggestions on managing water quality today and into the future. Environmental data is a valuable asset when advocating for continued improvement and effective strategies. It is disappointing that we still do not have this information.

This information was particularly sorely missed as Blueprint for Water developed our response to the EA’s consultation on Challenges and Choices. This was a broad consultation covering all areas impacting our water environment, from chemicals to invasive species, water flows to plastic pollution. It was impossible to make informed choices and assess the challenges without knowing the scale of the problem, trends and if the current measures are working or not. We had to base our response on our own pieced-together data, which is not comprehensive

The missing data places the health of nature and people at risk; without knowledge of whether water is clean to swim or kayak in and if pivotal species are missing - we cannot act. An alarming recent article revealed untreated human waste was released into streams and rivers for more than 1.5 million hours in 2019, but it should not be up to eNGOs and the media to make this data public.

Easily accessible, comprehensive data is needed in order to lay out an urgent plan of action to reverse the damage and create healthy blue spaces for both people and wildlife. The delayed ecological data needs to be published soon

This blog marks the last in Link’s environmental information series. We will continue to highlight the vital importance of good environmental data, as the roots from which nature’s recovery can grow.

Jodie Le Marquand is Policy and Information Coordinator at Wildlife and Countryside Link. She manages and supports Link's Blueprint for Water Group.

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