EA chief would be ‘cautious’ about swimming in England’s dirty rivers

Sir James Bevan, the chief executive of the Environment Agency (EA), has admitted he would be “cautious” about swimming in an English river due to their high levels of pollution.

In an interview with the i, Bevan also revealed that the EA is preparing to divert staff monitoring water quality in English rivers and seas and redeploy them to man flood defences, if there is a surge in the number of staff members needing to self-isolate. 

The EA, along with water companies, farmers and the government have been coming under increasing pressure over the state of England’s rivers after data published earlier this year revealed untreated sewage was discharged into England’s waterways for a total of 3.1 million hours in 2020. 

This came on the back of the EA’s own figures last year, which showed that not a single river or lake in England was in good chemical health. Just 14% of English rivers were found to have a good ecological standard.

Bevan told the i he would “definitely swim” in Britain’s coastal bathing waters, which he said have improved dramatically in quality in recent decades.  

However, he said he would “be cautious about swimming in a river” and would not do so until he had checked both the EA’s website and that of campaign group Surfers Against Sewage to check the water was not polluted.  

“I would be cautious about swimming in a river unless I was satisfied that it did have the necessary level of assurance.

“Our rivers have not been, and are currently not managed, for people to swim in,” he said.  

Bevan said the growth of large dairy farms was a major contributor to the deteriorated state of England’s rivers.

“You get fewer but bigger dairy farms discharging larger amounts of essentially sewage into watercourses,” he said.  

But he suggested a lack of regulation governing the farming sector, coupled with swingeing funding cuts was hindering the EA.

“We have had challenges because of the resourcing of the EA, which has made it harder for us to resource the kind of inspection, monitoring and enforcement that we would like to take in relation to farming,” he said.

Bevan also said his team were monitoring the EA’s staffing situation “very carefully” as sectors such as retail, transport and waste struggled to cope this week with increasing numbers of staff needing to self isolate. 
To maintain “critical activities” such as responding to serious flooding or pollution incidents, he said staff would be diverted from working on other issues if necessary, including efforts to monitor and improve water quality during the height of the summer bathing season. 

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