Expert reaction to Environmental Audit Committee report on Water Quality in Rivers

“We need to get real. This problem has arisen because of chronic, long-term under investment in sewers, water quality monitoring, and regulation. It will take billions of pounds over decades to fix, which society has to pay for. This is everyone’s responsibility to solve. 

“We can’t just keep dumping the costs on nature, because it can only take so much punishment before it breaks, with dead rivers and water that kills. I don’t want to live in that country.” Prof Hannah Cloke, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Reading

Owl really doesn’t need to add anything to this catalogue of expert comments:

www.sciencemediacentre.org  January 13, 2022

A report on the water quality in UK rivers has been published by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).

Dr Veronica Edmonds-Brown, senior lecturer in aquatic ecology from the University of Hertfordshire, said:

“Water companies and communities are dealing with a lack of infrastructure. Even though more housing is being built, these developments are connected to existing systems which are mostly of Victorian origin and over capacity. New developments increase local surface run off by 8 – 18% and this must go somewhere. If more housing is to be built, more money needs to be spent on infrastructure. Not doing so will lead to more flooding events, like we saw in London last summer.

“The bodies responsible for our drainage systems, drainage boards, local authorities and water companies all have different priorities, and action taken against pollution is often not joined up. Misconnections, where wastewater drains into the surface water drains instead of the sewage pipes, were not mentioned in the report and it is a big problem, particularly for urban rivers. Plumbing sewage and black wastewater into surface water drains is much more common than is acknowledged and difficult to rectify. Bacteria is often used to find misconnection hotspots, but these are not picked up unless they are looked for. Unlike beaches, bacteria testing in rivers is only done if there is concern, not as routine.

“There are several solutions to improve the water quality of our rivers. A national capital project is needed to improve drainage and sewage infrastructure in new developments. All new builds should also be checked for misconnections, and all homeowners should be legally responsible for assessing misconnections before selling the property. There should also be an over-arching body that deals with drainage and can work alongside different authorities. And finally, bacteria testing should be routine for rivers like bathing beaches.”

Dr Eulyn Pagaling, environmental microbiologist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, said:

“We agree with the conclusions from the Environmental Audit Committee on the water quality of English rivers and agree with the recommendations for improving the state of these aquatic environments. Amongst the issues highlighted was the prevalence of emerging contaminants, including persistent chemical pollutants, microplastics and antimicrobial resistance.

“Antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest challenges we face today, and we could potentially enter a post-antibiotic era where minor infections can have serious health consequences. Microplastics and chemical pollutants exacerbate this risk by enhancing the prevalence of resistant microbes. Rivers act as conduits of these biological and chemical pollutants, and therefore can have far reaching impacts on the environment and public health. Through regular monitoring, a targeted strategy for reducing these pollutants in the environment can be created.

“We welcome the report highlighting the need for government, regulators and the water industry to come together to restore these aquatic environments that have been neglected for far too long.”

Prof Kate Heppell (Chilterns Chalk Streams Project/Queen Mary University of London) & Dr Leon Barron (MRC Centre for Environment and Health at Imperial College London) said:

“’Citizen Science’ can play a critical role in developing our knowledge and response to chemical pollution. For example, as part of Thames Water’s Smarter Water Catchments initiative academics, industry, local government, conservation bodies, like the Chilterns Chalk Streams Project, and residents are combining their skills to develop new approaches to monitor chemicals of emerging concern in the River Chess. If scaled up, such collaborations could contribute to a sustainable UK-wide survey of emerging pollutants recommended by the Environmental Audit Committee report which we consider both timely and necessary.”

Prof Rick Stafford, British Ecological Society Policy Committee Chair and Bournemouth University, said:

“Given the previous major improvement in water quality and ecological health of UK rivers in the 1990s and 2000s, it is sad to see these improvements being undone.  Sewage and agricultural waste not only cause disease, but disrupt the nutrient dynamics of rivers, causing excess algae and harming biodiversity.   Poor water quality can also greatly impact many charismatic river species, including salmon and otters, which have only recently recovered in many UK rivers.”

Prof Iwan Jones, Head of the River Communities Group at Queen Mary University of London, said:

“We welcome the report from the Environmental Audit Committee, and their concerns about the condition of UK rivers. Whilst we strongly support more robust monitoring of the condition of our rivers, the responsibility for addressing the issues raise lies across the whole of society, from individuals to industry and government. We all need to consider the waste we make, how we deal with it, and the impact is it having.”

Prof David Slater, Director of risk management and sustainability consultancy Cambrensis, said:

“A very thorough, helpful, accurate and long overdue report, which needs urgently to be addressed. It is not a surprise, as the issue has been a concern and getting worse for at least 100 years.

“At the turn of the 20th century, waterworks were built and operated privately.  But from the 1970’s onwards, water was formally recognised as a public health necessity and public sector Regional Water Authorities (River basin Management Boards) were established and run by Local Authorities. But underfunded and under invested in by successive governments, there was no improvement, rather a steady decline in water quality.

“When in the 80s the EU introduced stricter legislation for water and prosecuted the UK for noncompliance, the estimated costs of compliance were considered unaffordable, then of the order of £25-30 billion. The quick fix was to privatise the problem and leave the solution to the River Basin Management bodies, which became the 10 largely private equity owned companies we see today.

“All the extra river management duties – pollution regulation, flood defence, drainage, conservation, etc. – were transferred to a new body, the National Rivers Authority.  So, rather than a traditional independent regulator, the water quality enforcement was diluted and left with the people used to marking their own homework.  This “light touch” tentative approach was a source of frustration to the professional regulators that were subsumed into the NRA when the current successor body, the Environment Agency, was formed in the 90’s.  Admittedly there are major challenges and problems with upgrading the infrastructure, such as the combined sewage outfalls (CSO’s), which seem to be regarded as an insoluble problem and are responsible for the bulk of the largely unenforced, illegal discharges into rivers and the sea.

“In contrast Tap water quality was assigned to a traditional small, effective professional inspectorate which has been quietly efficient (in costs and performance).

“So, what we are seeing now is the result of (tolerated) underfunding of the infrastructure by the companies and increasingly underfunded and underpowered (weak by design?) regulation. No surprise then – we have a major problem with our water quality.  What took us so long to recognise it officially?”

Prof Hannah Cloke, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Reading, said:

“I welcome this report which provides a scathing snapshot of the state of the water quality in England’s rivers. I am appalled that we have reached a point where every single river in the country is considered dangerously polluted by chemicals.

“This report highlights the scale of the problem and makes a useful recommendation that the government, water companies and other agencies come together to take every action possible to clean up our dirty rivers.

“Fundamentally this is a question of long-term investment in infrastructure, which means spending cash.  It is understandable that the committee isn’t making this their number one priority, because asking the government for more money tends to lead to a dismissive wave from the Treasury. Collaboration is fine but will mean nothing without investment.

“We need to get real. This problem has arisen because of chronic, long-term under investment in sewers, water quality monitoring, and regulation. It will take billions of pounds over decades to fix, which society has to pay for. This is everyone’s responsibility to solve. 

“We can’t just keep dumping the costs on nature, because it can only take so much punishment before it breaks, with dead rivers and water that kills. I don’t want to live in that country.”

Prof Paul Withers, Professor of Catchment Biogeochemistry at Lancaster University, said:

“It’s very reassuring to see that the report has highlighted and endorsed the need for every catchment to have a nutrient budget to allow targeting of appropriate and effective solutions to tackling nutrient pollution, and for the current outdated, inadequate and under-resourced water quality monitoring programmes to be greatly improved not only to help identify pollution sources better, but also critically to monitor future progress towards healthier rivers and our future water security.”

Prof Nigel Watson, Professor of Geography and Environmental Management, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, said:

“The Environmental Audit Committee inquiry is the most comprehensive and in-depth investigation into river water quality for many years. The final report presents clear and alarming evidence of insufficient investment, ineffective monitoring, inadequate reporting, coupled with weak regulation and enforcement. All of this points to an urgent need for a major shake-up and re-think of the water sector, alongside stronger action to tackle pollution from farming and from highways.

“Early progress in the 1990s following water privatisation has clearly not been maintained. We now have a situation where almost every river in England is degraded by cocktails of untreated or partially treated sewage, agricultural waste, plastics and persistent chemicals.

“The risks to public health and to wildlife from poor water quality are exacerbated by the impacts of climate change. Discharges of untreated sewage have become increasingly commonplace as a result of more frequent intense rainfall and storm events, despite those discharges only being permitted by law in exceptional circumstances. People spending more time outdoors, and the growing popularity of wild swimming, have helped to bring these issues to public and political attention.

“The EAC report sets out some clear and very welcome recommendations, including the enhancement of catchment partnerships, the use of technology to enhance water quality monitoring, better reporting and transparency, and more stringent economic and environmental regulation of water companies, and re-direction of agricultural support towards the environment. All of this is going to cost money, and the critical question now is how much of that should come from water customers, company shareholders, and public taxation.”  

Prof Paul Kay, Professor of Water Science at the University of Leeds, said:

“I think the report represents a fair and robust analysis of the water quality of England’s rivers. I always find that the EAC does a very good job.

“General interest in river quality appears to have increased in the last few years, perhaps as a result of failing to meet Water Framework Directive objectives so spectacularly, but these problems have existed for many years. Water quality has improved a lot since the pollution caused by the industrial revolution but over recent decades we have taken few effective steps to keep on improving water quality. For instance, we have known about combined sewer overflows and diffuse agricultural pollution for a long time but have failed to do anything effective in response. With a growing population and ever increasing consumption of resources and generation of waste the situation is only likely to get worse if left unchecked.  

“Rivers are not in a terrible state but could be improved. Things such as fish kills are not uncommon and I certainly wouldn’t swim in England’s rivers below the very headwaters due to chemical and bacterial pollution. Limiting discharge of raw sewage by sewer overflows is key as is reducing diffuse agricultural pollution. Urban diffuse pollution could also be reduced. We all have a role to play though; so long as we keep consuming as we are (e.g. production of masses of relatively cheap food, lots of meat consumption, using water without thinking, new housing, more and more cars etc etc) it will be difficult to see changes. We also need a government which takes environmental protection seriously and I don’t see that at the moment – see chronic underfunding of the Environment Agency and the shambolic creation of the Environmental Land Management Scheme for instance.”

Declared interests

Prof Paul Withers: “was a contributor to the report.”

Prof Nigel Watson: “appeared as an expert witness at the EAC inquiry on March 10, 2021.”

Prof Iwan Jones: “Action on plastics is being informed by research at Queen Mary University of London, helping to determine the risks involved, monitoring methods and appropriate actions to help address this emerging issue.  Iwan Jones submitted evidence for this report.”