EA chief signals desire to change rule that exposes extent of river pollution | rivers

The head of the Environment Agency has signaled he wants to change a key water quality regulation that repeatedly outlines how England’s rivers are choking in a cocktail of sewage and agricultural pollution.

James Bevan, chief executive of the Environment Agency, said he wanted to amend the Water Framework Directive, the law which provides a strict testing regime for English rivers. It includes a legal requirement that 75% of English rivers must be healthy under its testing regime by 2027.

Data shows that currently no river passes ecological and chemical health tests due to a cocktail of pollution from sewage, agricultural runoff and industry.

Environmental groups say the regulations are essential as a ‘legal lens’ to show people the degraded state of the river environment.

Defra’s annual report last week revealed that no progress had been made over the past year on improving river water quality, with just 16% rated as being in good ecological condition, the same as in 2016. The lack of progress means that the government is unlikely to meet the legal threshold of 75% of rivers in good condition by 2027 under the Water Framework Directive ( ECD).

It is one of 570 laws slated for scrapping or amendment by December 2023 as part of the government’s EU bill, a move that environmental groups say amounts to free deregulation for all .

Bevan, in a speech this week, backed the wholesale scrapping and rewriting of laws, saying it was a great opportunity to deliver better regulation and better outcomes for people, businesses and nature.

“The government has embarked on an exercise to remove, revise or retain all EU secondary legislation currently in force, much of which forms the basis of most environmental regulations in this country. We welcome that,” he said.

He said the Water Framework Directive was a key law he would amend, saying the testing regime was too complex and could mislead about the true state of these waters.

“Because the directive states that waters can only achieve ‘good’ status if they all tick several different boxes, it may require regulators to spend time and resources on indicators that may not make much difference to the actual water quality, distracting from things that would,” Bevan said.

“I would not repeal the WFD. But I would reform it, to make sure it leads to action that will deliver the clean, plentiful water we all want.

Bevan’s comments come as data shows Environment Agency testing of English rivers has dropped to a 10-year low and failure to sample is the biggest threat to the river health.

Richard Benwell, of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said the WFD targets had been a major driver of public and private investment in nature for many years.

“They’ve also been a legal lens that has opened people’s eyes to the degraded state of our river environment, which could ultimately lead to change,” he said. He said removing the global target that 75% of rivers should be healthy by 2027 would jeopardize future investment and future accountability.

“It would be a mistake to abandon the target, and it is worrying that the government has missed a long-term target for overall water quality in its environmental law proposals.”

He said Bevan was right that there had to be better ways to recognize and encourage progress towards “good” status. But he added: ‘This can be achieved by improving water quality monitoring and reporting, and giving polluters clear legal responsibility for cleanup. The trick is that new responsibilities should be defined as a means to achieve overall river quality goals, not as a replacement.

Mark Lloyd, of the Rivers’ Trust, said: “We must…continue to assess ourselves against the laudable goals set out in the Water Framework Directive, which was led by the UK government in the first place, and which is an excellent framework for understanding the health of rivers and other water bodies.

Leave a Comment