Is the Environment Agency taking water pollution seriously?

River pollution has come increasingly under the spotlight in the past couple of years, from both the media and politicians. Local campaign groups have sprung up around the country as public awareness and anger over the state of England’s rivers has grown.

Will the EA's new hires improve water quality? Photograph: Massimiliano Finzi/Getty Images Will the EA's new hires improve water quality? Photograph: Massimiliano Finzi/Getty Images

All water bodies are contaminated with chemicals, with runoff from agricultural manures and fertilisers identified as the biggest single polluter of rivers, responsible for 40% of damage to waterways. Even the agency’s chief executive Sir James Bevan has admitted that he would be cautious about swimming in rivers, since they are currently not managed for this purpose.

The Environment Agency responded in several ways. In July, it announced the creation of a director of water quality, which will be taken up by the agency’s chief of staff John Leyland, initially for one year, though the post has scope to expand, according to a spokeswoman at DEFRA. 

Leyland’s role is to coordinate all water quality work at a senior level, and to secure additional funding so the agency can increase its capacity to deal with the issue. 

But professor Rebecca Malby, co-founder of the Ilkley Clean River Group (ICRG), said that the first thing the director would need to do was change the culture at the Environment Agency. “Our experience is that there isn’t really a cultural commitment to water quality at the agency, they think it’s too expensive, and too hard. 

“They don’t prosecute enough, they don’t test enough. They don’t feel accountable to local people, and don’t involve them. They’re not passionate about protecting waters, and they get very involved in the data, rather than deal in the spirit of it,” she said. 

The agency is also recruiting 50 agricultural regulatory inspection officers following criticism of its failure to enforce farming water pollution rules, which were introduced in 2018, yet have not resulted in a single prosecution. The rules aim to protect water quality by requiring farmers to judge when it is best to apply fertilisers, where to store manures and how to avoid pollution from soil erosion.

The agency currently has 28 full time employed staff currently focused on farm inspections, according to a spokeswoman. Campaign group River Action calculated that the new recruits would take the chances of an inspector visiting a farm from one in every 263 years, to one in every 50 years. 

The agency has funding for the inspectors for 18 months, and could make them permanent if they secure more. They will visit farms to assess compliance and work with farmers to reduce pollution risk. “We want to continue to work with farmers to achieve this, but if necessary we will also be prepared to take enforcement action, including prosecution,” the spokeswoman said.

Martin Lines, chair of the Nature Friendly Farming Network, said that the new inspectors were “certainly a step in the right direction”. But he stressed that the inspectors should not focus only on enforcement, but also education to inform farmers of the rules, and how they can mitigate against any problems. 

“The rules have been very poorly communicated and almost ignored by the Environment Agency and the government, but also by farming organisations – as an industry they have not been communicating to farmers about the legal requirements they need to deliver,” he said. 

Many farmers were now feeling unfairly penalised about the Environment Agency’s interpretation of the rules, even though they were in place before, he said. 

In early August, the government announced a doubling of funding for its Catchment Sensitive Farming (CSF) programme, to £30 million, up from £16.6m in 2020/21.

The programme – which is a partnership between DEFRA, Natural England and the Environment Agency – provides free one-to-one advice to farmers to help them reduce water and air pollution, including through management of farmyard manure and soils.

Lines warned that the inspectors would face some tough conversations. “There’s a balance between accidental damage and lack of knowledge, and purposefully doing harm. And the interpretation by the landowner and the householder doing that action may be different to the inspector’s,” he said. 

He added that pollution from manure has become a much bigger problem as livestock numbers have increased and been moved inside as a way of making meat production cheaper, particularly in the dairy sector. 

“We can’t suddenly turn the switch off and say we’re going to change that, because the market has driven that. We need to make the market change farmers’ method of production, so we need to recognise the cost of that production in the whole system. We’re not joining up the cost of managing the manure to the cost of the product,” he said.

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