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Water quality: the true story

Richard Benwell reflects on concerning news about the health of our rivers.

September 2020

Yesterday, new Environment Agency data showed that not a single river, lake or stream in England is in “good status”, despite a target for all freshwater bodies to be in good health by 2027. When figures were last published in 2016, 16% of waters were classed as good.

Beneath this headline, there are three key figures and one clear message.

Figure 1: 0% of water bodies met good chemical status

To achieve overall “good” status, a water body must meet the required standard in four areas: biological, physical-chemical, chemical and hydromorphological.

The precipitous fall in the figure for overall status this year reflects the fact that every water body has failed to meet good chemical status. The change doesn’t mean there has been a real world worsening of the freshwater environment. There has been no sudden influx of extra pollution that has corrupted our waters. It does, however, reflect the real situation for the first time.

In previous assessments, a small number of assessments were made of chemical concentrations in the water column and, from there, the Government extrapolated an assessment for the rest of the environment. This was an extremely limited and optimistic assessment.

This time, the Government has been obliged to follow EC environmental quality standards in biota, assessing the bio-accumulation of chemicals in fish, crayfish and mussels.

The failures result from a variety of chemical sources. Some are the result of Persistent Organic Pollutants released from products such as flame retardants. Many of these chemicals are controlled more carefully now, but continue to leach into the environment where they linger a long time and build up in the flesh of animals. Other failures result from ongoing pollution, such as mercury or pesticides like cypermethrin.

For chemical status, then, the true extent of toxic substances abiding in our waters has been revealed properly for the first time. Much more concerted action will be needed to achieve the 25 Year Environment Plan commitment to destroy or ameliorate Persistent Organic Pollutants material “to make sure there are negligible emissions to the environment”. This is a pernicious and insidious problem that will require a determined Government to deal with hard-to-reach sources of pollution and improve waste management.

Figure 2: 16% of water bodies met good ecological status

For chemical status, a measure of understanding should be afforded to Government that a significant proportion of the reasons for failure are the result of “legacy” pollution. For ecological status—where the proportion of water bodies meeting the required legal standard remains locked at 16%—there can be no such excuses. Failures on ecological status are often the result of:

(1) excessive nutrient loads from fertiliser run-off and sewage such as nitrogen, phosphates, ammonia and faecal matter (which can cause eutrophication, starving the water of oxygen and suffocating aquatic life);
(2) diffuse pollution such as pesticides (chemicals which are literally designed to kill); and
(3) over-abstraction by water companies (which causes unnaturally low flow-rates, harming wildlife directly as well as concentrating pollution and increasing its potency).

All of these sources could be managed by better policy.

While some stretches of rivers and streams have been improved by Environment Agency action, across the landscape the failure to enforce farming regulations, incentivise better land management practice, reduce water demand and abstraction and invest in catchment-based approaches has left our rivers struggling to support wildlife. This includes waters of international importance. For example, England has 85% of the world’s chalk streams.

The changes necessary are all within the gift of Government and urgent action is needed to make progress toward the target for water bodies to be in good health by 2027.

Figure 3: ??% of small water bodies are healthy

While yesterday’s data give us a better picture of the state of our aquatic environment for the first time, they don’t give a complete picture. The Environment Agency has decided not to monitor the state of small water bodies, arguing that doing so would not represent good value for money.

This is a critical gap. England’s 250,000 ponds, for example, support 10% of all priority species and new scientific evidence is demonstrating that they are crucial oases for pollinators, supporting valuable services for the economy. The current minimalist approach to monitoring risks devaluing these important water bodies and undermining an integrated catchment approach.

Facing the facts: regulation and investment

This week’s figures present a clear warning to Government: urgent investment will be needed to achieve the 25 Year Environment Plan and compliance with legal obligations such as the Water Framework Directive.

Faced with this reality, the Government has a choice. Outside the EU, it could dodge the issue and move the goalposts. Clause 81 of the Environment Bill would give the Government power to change its objectives for important components of water quality such as chemical status, as well as the way they are measured. The clause should be amended to ensure that no government, now or in future, can simply cast another veil over the truth and revert to different ways of reporting.

On the other hand, the Government could face the facts and take urgent action to restore our freshwater environment. The tools are in place:

In the Environment Bill policy paper, the Government is considering new legally-binding targets to tackle many of the pressures on the water environment, such as nitrate and phosphate pollution. It must go further, with strong targets to reduce over-abstraction as well as a new ambitious goal for clean waters, to set an outcome objective beyond the WFD target date of 2027.

In the future Environmental Land Management system, there must be strong regulations and enforcement on the one hand (improving the low-compliance rates with critical rules like slurry storage and the farming rules for water) as well as generous support for farmers who go further and enhance our freshwater environment.

Most critically, the Government must invest. In the Spending Review, new investment will be required to support the Environment Agency and Natural England, as well as direct funding for habitat improvement through catchment-led initiatives. In the last assessment, the Environment Agency concluded that over £3bn of public money would be needed. Of course, much more private investment will be needed too, with clear penalties for water companies that fail to meet their environmental obligations, but also a clearer mandate from the regulator that water companies should invest in environmental resilience and restoring nature.

The future

Improving our waters will be a test case for the future of environmental policy. If we continue to let our freshwater environment languish in poor condition and simply dodge reality, then the chances of overall environmental improvement and restoring nature are bleak. The freshwater environment is integral to the health of entire ecosystems. The failures reported this week have implications for the government’s entire environmental programme, with the condition of many of our most important wildlife sites depending on the rivers that sustain them.

On the other hand, strong action from Government could still turn things around in time to support the commitment to pass on our environment in better condition. The design of farming and water industry regulation and enforcement, the targets set in the Environment Bill and, right now, the investment needed in the Spending Review will determine the future for our water environment. With the right investment and care, our rivers and streams could be "blue corridors" for wildlife, connecting ecosystems and bringing the joy of nature to the heart of our communities.

Richard Benwell is CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link

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