River pollution: is legislative reform the answer?

Some experts say current river regulation is too complex and needs reform
17 November 2022 , Steve Smethurst

All English rivers currently fail WFD health test, yet 75% of English rivers are legally bound to be in good health by 2027

The Chief Executive of the Environment Agency has called for changes to regulation on water quality. Sir James Bevan made the appeal in a speech to the Whitehall and Industry Group on November 1st, but said it was a ‘personal view’, rather than official policy.

Bevan said that as the government has embarked on an exercise to remove, revise or retain the body of EU-derived law currently in force, he would reform the Water Framework Directive (WFD), relating to the quality of English water bodies.

The WFD provides a legal requirement that 75% of English rivers be in good health under its testing regime by 2027. Currently, no river passes test for both ecological and chemical health as a result of a cocktail of pollution from sewage, agricultural runoff and industry.

Bevan said: “The way in which the WFD requires us to categorise the status of waters is complex, and can be misleading about the real state of those waters, both for better and for worse.

Because the WFD stipulates that waters can only get good status if they tick several boxes, it can force regulators to focus time and resources on indicators that may not make much difference to the actual water quality, taking focus away from things that would.

Dr Barnaby Dobson, an expert in water systems at Imperial College London, agreed that the regulation has shortcomings. “It is not joined up enough and insufficiently tailored to the local environment,” he said. For example, if you have a high-population-density area that sends waste to a plant which discharges into a small river, it will be polluted – I don't consider this to be the failing of the wastewater company.

I would like to see estimates of pollutant loads (particularly from foul sewers, storm drainage, and agriculture), considered in the context of the rivers that receive these loads. I believe this would lead to less focus on blaming pollution sources (which is not helpful), and more focus of understanding what contributes to the in-river concentrations of pollution.

[The WFD legislation] sets out a vision for healthy water bodies that can support a wide range of species and many organisations have aligned their work to delivering against its targets.

However, Mark Lloyd, CEO, Rivers Trust said the WFD remains a really important piece of legislation. It sets out a vision for healthy water bodies that can support a wide range of species and many organisations have aligned their work to delivering against its targets. We must keep the overall measure of ecological health.”

Philip Dunne MP, Chairman, Environmental Audit Committee said that his committee had discussed issues of water quality regulation with the chief executives of the EA, Ofwat and National Highways in June 2021 during its inquiry into water quality in rivers.

He said: “The committee did not recommend changes to the operation of the WFD, we did however encourage the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) to improve regulation in the water sector, and in June 2022 the OEP opened an investigation into the roles of Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Defra Secretary of State in the regulation of combined sewer overflows in England.

That investigation will no doubt result in valuable lessons for the future of water-quality regulation. I look forward to reading their conclusions when they emerge.

Image credit: Shutterstock 

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