Despite evidence from at least eight sources, the Chief Executive of the Environment Agency says “It’s wrong to suggest that the state of England’s rivers is poor”
The Financial Times recently reported that only 14% of rivers in England met the minimum “good status” standards as defined by the EU Water Framework directive according to an Environment Agency report in 2018. In 2009 almost 25% did so. Water quality has deteriorated since 2010 when the Environment Agency handed responsibility for pollution monitoring to the nine large water and sewage companies in England.
Evidence supporting their report comes from the World Wildlife Fund, Windrush rivers campaign, Fish Legal, Marine Conservancy, European Environment Agency, NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Sewage Free Seas. It was quoted in England’s rivers: toxic cocktail of chemicals, antibiotic-resistant bacteria and untreated waste.
Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, replied in a letter to the FT, “It’s wrong to suggest that the state of England’s rivers is poor (“Blighted by pollution”, The Big Read, June 13)”. He continued:
Water quality is now better than at any time since the Industrial Revolution thanks to tougher regulation and years of hard work by the Environment Agency and others.
Rivers that were so polluted that they were severely biologically damaged two decades ago are now thriving with wildlife such as otters, dippers and mayflies returning.
Over the past 20 years EA teams have taken more than 50m samples to monitor water quality around the country. The EU’s water framework directive means that the failure of one test can prevent a river from achieving good ecological status overall but this often does not tell the whole story.
During the last round of testing, 76 per cent of the tests used to measure the health of rivers were rated as good, and last year 98 per cent of bathing waters at 420 locations passed tough quality standards, compared with less than a third in the 1990s.
The EA has also required water companies to install new monitoring systems on combined sewer overflows (CSOs). By March next year more than 11,500 CSOs will be monitored as the first phase of this work is completed
It is not true that the EA simply relies on the water companies to tell us what they are discharging into watercourses. We carry out our own monitoring of rivers to ensure we have independent evidence and we regularly inspect water treatment plants and sewage works. If companies are failing to abide by the law or the terms of their permits we will take action to ensure that they do, up to and including prosecution.
Since 1990, the water industry has invested almost £28bn in environmental improvement work, much of it to improve water quality. I agree that there are still too many serious pollution incidents and we have called for tougher penalties for water companies where they are shown to be at fault.
In the past three years we have brought 31 prosecutions against water companies, resulting in more than £30m in fines, and we will continue, alongside the other water regulators, to act to ensure that people, wildlife and the environment are protected.
The agencies quoted are unconvinced and the FT asked earlier this month: Can England’s water companies clean up its dirty rivers?
It noted that the concerns over river pollution come at a time when the water industry is under fire for paying executives and shareholders lucrative rewards while raising customer bills and failing to stem leakage and ended: “The failures mean that three decades after the regional state-run monopolies were handed to private companies free of debt, and with a £1.5bn grant to invest in environmental improvements, the Labour party is calling for renationalisation of the water companies that are now saddled with debt of £51bn”.
Since this article was written, Southern Water — supplier to Kent, Hampshire, Isle of Wight and Sussex — has been required to pay what amounts to a £126m penalty over five years for letting untreated waste leak into rivers between 2010 and 2017, and trying to hide what happened.