EXCLUSIVE: EA water quality testing yet to return to pre-pandemic levels

Water quality testing conducted by the Environment Agency (EA) has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels, raising concerns that permit breaches and pollution incidents in rivers are frequently going unnoticed.

Number of tests carried out in May was down by 38% compared to 2019. Photograph: Vitranc / Getty Images Number of tests carried out in May was down by 38% compared to 2019. Photograph: Vitranc / Getty Images

An analysis by ENDS of more than 2.6 million EA water quality test results has revealed that there were just 97,079 water tests in May this year, down from 155,664 in May 2019.

This represents a reduction of 38% compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Preliminary data for June and July also shows that the number of tests carried out is likely to have been significantly below pre-pandemic levels.

According to the EA’s preliminary figures for June this year, there were just 80,324 water quality tests during the month, down by 45% compared to 146,184 tests in June 2019.

Samples are taken at sampling points around England and can be from coastal or estuarine waters, rivers, lakes, ponds, canals or groundwaters.

They are taken for a number of purposes including compliance assessment against discharge permits, investigation of pollution incidents, and environmental monitoring.

Environmental groups are becoming increasingly critical of the EA’s failure to prioritise water testing, alongside its inability to find ways to work around the challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “We are seeing a water industry that is not being held to account and is woefully under regulated.”

He added: “We're seeing inadequate testing, inadequate enforcement, inadequate penalties on water companies, and on polluting farming practices. If we don't have the same level of testing that we had before the pandemic, that sends out a very worrying message and could take us on a journey towards further declines in water quality standards.”

In a statement to ENDS, the EA said: “We have continued to analyse and prioritise critical samples, including for incident response purposes, throughout the pandemic.

“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.”

Figures released by the EA in September last year showed, for the first time, that no river had achieved good chemical status and only 14% were found to be of a good ecological standard.

Following this, in December, ENDS revealed that the total number of reported environmental incidents attended by the EA had declined by more than half amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, raising concerns that polluters may be able to violate regulations without consequence.

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