The Environment Agency has admitted that surface and groundwater quality in England has remained static from 2016 to 2019 and is "a long way from the government’s ambitions".
It has also confirmed to Environment Analyst that it is considering advocating new UK legislation to replace the EU’s Water Framework Directive but denied that this will lead to a degradation of environmental standards.
Newly-released water classification data relating to obligations under the directive reveals that only 16% of waters (and 14% of rivers) meet the criteria for ‘good ecological status’, the same percentage as in 2016. No surface water body now meets ‘good chemical status’, compared to 97% in 2016. A good is needed in both categories for a water body to achieve a good rating overall.
The EU’s Water Framework Directive (WFD) which was adopted by the UK in 2000, imposes standards for the improvement of all aspects of water environments, including rivers, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater. It requires surface water or ‘blue space’ to be of good quality by 2027.
An Environment Agency statement said the downgrading of water quality revealed by the latest data reflects a change in classification methods, with chemicals that do not break down easily in the environment, that were not measured in 2016, now included for monitoring.
But campaigning body The Rivers Trust is highly critical of declining water quality. Representing trusts working in 60 river catchments throughout the UK, it has accused the agency of a lack of transparency in reporting data and of "standing still" on improving standards.
Dr Rob Collins, the trust’s head of policy and science, said that while the increase in the number of chemicals being monitored by the EA was to be welcomed, the picture revealed by the latest data was extremely disappointing.
"Numerous chemicals, including those that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic, are now ubiquitous in our aquatic environments," said Collins. "This presents an urgent threat to people and wildlife. As this pollution moves through our landscapes, it represents a chemical time-bomb which we have detonated for the next generation. It is our responsibility to stop polluting now, and every sector from agriculture to transport has a role to play."
"Despite an increase in efforts from civil society and NGOs such as The Rivers Trust, the national effort overall has, at very best, stagnated with no overall improvement in river health," concluded Collins.
The trust is calling for more vigorous enforcement, the expansion of data collection and reverses to cuts in monitoring budgets. It argues that upgrades to storm and sewer systems are needed and a faster transition to regenerative agriculture.
Following a speech made by the chief executive of the Environment Agency Sir James Bevan in August, the agency has issued a rebuttal to widely reported accusations that it is in favour of diminishing legal protections of water quality, by replacing the Water Framework Directive with new UK legislation.
Suggesting that change is needed in his speech, Bevan commented that the WFD "forces regulators to focus time and resources on indicators that may not make much difference to the actual water quality, at the expense of others which we would be better focusing on."
In a blog, Defra accused the Guardian of "inaccurate reporting" of the agency’s intentions. It said the Bevan "had made clear that the test of any changes should be better environmental outcomes. To claim that he was arguing to weaken laws on the cleanliness of polluted rivers is completely false".The agency, it said was working to improve cleanliness through the water quality objectives of the 25 Year Environment Plan, which aimed to improve at least three-quarters of waters, returning them to their natural state. There would also be legally binding targets impacting on water in the Environment Bill and agriculture would be reformed, so as to reduce pollution. The 2015 river basin management plan had confirmed £3bn of investment until 2021.
An agency spokesperson told Environment Analyst this week: "We welcome the debate on how to improve environmental regulation now that we have left the EU. We agree with the NGOs that the aim should be to deliver even better outcomes for our rivers, lakes and coastal water."
They added: "We should consider amending the Water Framework Directive to achieve that. As Sir James said in his speech: ‘If changing the law will allow us to regulate better and achieve higher environmental standards, we should always be open to that’."
Source: Environment Analyst