Water industry calls for ‘new deal for rivers’

‘A new, combined, national endeavour’ is needed to put English rivers back to good health, including a new approach to designating bathing waters, says a report by industry association Water UK.

The report defends how the industry has performed since privatisation, having “invested £30 billion in the environment, cutting the number of beaches that fail legal standards from over a third to just one half of one percent; cutting ammonia emissions by 70%, phosphates by 60%, toxic metals like cadmium and mercury by 50%; and reducing serious pollution incidents by 90% to reach the lowest levels ever recorded.”

“The truth, though, is that this is not enough,” it adds.

The sector is now faced with three interacting challenges, according to the report. Climate change presents an “urgent threat” to water quality by changing river flows and promoting the growth of algae, it says. River quality is still not up to scratch and is bound to miss the government target for three quarters to be rated good by 2027, the report adds. What the public expects from rivers has also changed “massively” over the past two decades, with increased participation in activities such as angling, water sports and open swimming, it continues.

The report therefore calls for “a new deal for rivers in England”

It puts much of the blame for rivers not achieving good ecological status on farming, with livestock, fertiliser, soil erosion, land drainage and other such issues the reason for 36% of such failures. Urban development and transport, invasive species, misconnected plumbing and other threats take up most of the rest, says the report.

Water UK also admits that the sector is responsible for a quarter of failures, with wastewater treatment and combined sewer overflows taking the lion’s share of the damage. But it says that this is being dealt with, not least by a pledge to invest £1.1bn on overflows alone.

In contrast, little is being done to address the other threats it names, the industry body contends. “The 10 recommendations in this document are intended to change that,” says the report, which proposes the formation of a National Plan for Rivers with new systems of accountability, legal protection and local empowerment. The idea is inspired by last year’s National Framework for Water Resources, which takes a long term strategic approach to securing water supplies.

“Rivers have been in a state of crisis for much of the last hundred years, and though there’s been huge progress in the last few decades, there’s much more to do and an urgent need for everyone involved to address the challenges together,” said the trade association’s chief executive Christine McGourty.

“Water companies are passionate about their own role as stewards of the natural environment and are committed to playing their part, but what’s needed is a clear, single, national plan, involving everyone – river users, customer groups, environmental charities, government, regulators as well as agriculture, highways, and all the sectors impacting river quality,” she continued.

The other aspects of the plan include:

  • Drafting a new Rivers Act, emphasising nature-based solutions to the problems identified in the report. This could provide a duty to cooperate for parties such as local authorities, the Environment Agency and those discharging into bathing rivers.

  • A ‘next-generation national monitoring system’ feeding a single national platform for data on ecology, chemistry, public health and aesthetics.

  • Working with government and other stakeholders to improve the public’s understanding of ‘unflushables’ and water efficiency.

  • Embedding habitat restoration “across all legislation, frameworks and funding priorities”.

  • The government should introduce a target under the Environment Bill to reduce abstraction for public supply, feeding into “a significant acceleration” of action on demand, leakage and new sources of supply over the 2025-30 investment period.

  • New measures to reduce and divert surface water from sewer pipes should be agreed next year, deploying large-scale sustainable drainage systems. This should “progressively eliminate the four per cent of harm caused by storm overflows to English rivers, starting with the most sensitive catchments”.

The report suggests that a new bathing rivers framework should be developed, through the collaboration of the government, swimming and riparian recreation groups, farmers, landowners and the water industry. This would do away with “the current clunky model” of applying for bathing water status, and include an automatic expectation that funding will follow to ensure compliance.

However, it also appears to suggest watering down the regime, through creating “faster, cheaper and healthier approaches to open swimming”. These could include advising that a stretch of river be used at only certain times of the year, or supported by real-time information.

Mark Lloyd, the Rivers Trust chief executive, said: “We really welcome this new level of ambition from the water industry to take responsibility for its share of the problems with our rivers, which is essential.  However, the report is also right to emphasise that a collaborative approach from all sectors will be required if we are to succeed in securing a sustainable future, and that action needs to be underpinned by much better data.”

But Feargal Sharkey, vice president of Salmon and Trout Conservation, was unimpressed, dismissing the report as “a hilarious if not shabby attempt to produce a piece of self-serving propaganda”.

Having amassed debts of almost £50bn, while paying over £57bn in dividends since 1991, while vastly over-abstracting water chalk streams, the industry should address its own problems first, he added.