‘Scant and misleading’: Why the EA is under fire for failing to increase water quality testing

Campaign groups are calling for the Environment Agency (EA) to ramp up water quality monitoring as new figures reveal that the number of tests being carried out remains far below pre-pandemic levels. Wil Crisp reports.

Monitoring and testing remains low. Photograph: Robert Brook/Getty Images Monitoring and testing remains low. Photograph: Robert Brook/Getty Images

Earlier this week, ENDS revealed that just 97,079 water tests were carried out in May this year, down 38% from the 155,664 tests recorded in the same month in 2019.

One of the key areas that has seen a decline is testing to check that companies are complying with permits.

Over the first five months of 2019, a total of 20,784 compliance tests were carried out by the EA, while during the first five months of 2021, the total number of tests carried out was 78% lower at just 4,491.

The EA claims the reduction in testing is a result of the Covid-19 pandemic but data seen by ENDS suggests that the number of tests carried out by operators and submitted to the EA was not impacted by the pandemic to the same degree.

Over the first five months of 2019 a total of 90,823 tests were carried out by operators and submitted to the regulator, whereas a total of 87,147 were undertaken by operators during the same period in 2021, a decline of just 4%.

Environmental campaign groups have also previously pointed out that EA staff that collect samples are key workers, so could have continued work without breaching government Covid-19 guidelines.

Janina Gray, the head of science and environmental policy at the campaign group Salmon and Trout Conservation, said: “At a time when 100% of our water bodies are failing to reach overall healthy status and freshwater biodiversity is declining quicker than any other, it’s incredibly concerning water monitoring and compliance testing is still a fraction of pre-pandemic levels.

“Before the pandemic monitoring and enforcement was insufficient to police polluters and prevent damage to rivers, but now it’s pretty much a free for all with pollution incidents likely to be going unnoticed altogether. Priority must be given to restoring and increasing monitoring and compliance testing if we are serious about a green recovery and building back better”.

Another area that has seen a decline is testing in the wake of pollution incidents.

Over the first five months of 2019 a total of 18,843 water tests were carried out in England in response to pollution incidents.

This declined by almost half over the first five months of 2021, with the total number of tests carried out in response to pollution incidents coming in at just 10,078.

Jazz Austin, a policy officer at the RSPB, said: “A robust testing regime is vital to protect our rivers and lakes from pollution. We know that most water bodies in England are failing to achieve good ecological status, and this new data suggests the EA is increasingly in the dark when it comes to being able to fix that. Pollution is bad for people and wildlife, and the EA needs to urgently invest in the monitoring capacity needed to hold polluters to account.”

Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said that as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, Britain’s exit from the European Union has been a key factor in reducing the amount of water tests carried out.

He believes that it will require a radical policy overhaul to bring testing up to appropriate levels.

“The testing regime was already inadequate in 2019, and now it is even worse. This government said that Brexit was going to give Britain the opportunity to be world-beating on environmental standards, but it is actually being used to abandon environmental legislation,” said Tagholm.

“While testing has gone down we are seeing thousands of sewage pollution events every year and thousands of diffuse pollution events that are compromising water quality, putting human health at risk and damaging sensitive marine habitat.

“That's not good enough. We need the water industry to be truly held to account with testing and regulatory regimes that really make them put their money where their mouth is and stop polluting our blue spaces,” he added.

Mark Lloyd, the chief executive of the environmental charity the Rivers Trust, also believes that the existing testing system needs a radical overhaul.

He said: “We need to know far more than we do about the health of our rivers, but over the past decade we have progressively known less and less as budgets have been steadily reduced. Multi-billion pound decisions about expenditure are being based on scant and misleading data.”

The Rivers Trust believes that one solution could be the Catchment Monitoring Co-Operative, a group that is attempting to bring together multiple sources of data including government results and new citizen science data into a single framework.

The Rivers Trust submitted a bid to fund the initiative from the government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund, but the bid was not successful.

“It is very disappointing that our bid for funding to the government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund for the CMC was unsuccessful, but we are seeking support from the Ofwat innovation fund in partnership with numerous water companies. Big data on water is essential if we are going to revive our rivers,” Lloyd said.

In a statement to ENDS the EA highlighted that it had continued to analyse and prioritise what it called “critical samples” throughout the pandemic.

It said these samples included tests required for incident response purposes.

A spokesperson added: “Due to the impact of the ongoing pandemic and the need to adhere with social distancing to protect the safety of field, office and laboratory staff, some monitoring and laboratory capacity has been temporarily reduced.

“We will get back to full capacity as soon as we can, while maintaining safe ways of working.”

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