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The health of rivers in England is improving thanks to the work of the water industry

The Financial Times published an article in June 2019 which gave the impression that river quality in England is unsafe due to water company sewage (“Blighted by pollution”, The Big Read, June 13). This is verifiably untrue, and risks misleading readers.

The claim that the number of rivers with “good” ecological status has gone down from nearly 25 per cent in 2009 to 14 per cent is wrong. The measurement method changed in 2014, which means the article fails to compare like-with-like. The figures were from the Environment Agency (EA) report “The State of the Environment: Water Quality”. The report clearly shows that, on a consistent basis of measurement, the proportion of rivers achieving good or better ecological status was 23 per cent in 2016, compared with 22 per cent in 2009.

Another claim, that “much of the pollution [of rivers] is caused by 17,684 licensed emergency sewer overflows”, is also untrue. According to the EA, only 3.3 per cent of “good” ecological status failures in rivers are due to sewage from overflows. It’s worth noting that 72 per cent of river pollution comes from sources other than the water industry, and official EA analysis shows agriculture is the single largest source of river pollution. Most of the pollution from the water industry is from phosphorus (which poses no direct risk to human health) under permitted operations and it has declined by 60 per cent between 1995 and 2015.

The further claim that river water quality in England already lags behind much of Europe, including Romania, Slovakia, Scandinavia and Scotland, is misleading and lacks context.

The European Environment Agency (EEA), which compiles the figures, advises against comparison “as the results are directly affected by the methods Member States have used to collect data and often cannot be compared directly”. Furthermore, it is hardly surprising that rivers running through sparsely populated countryside do better than densely-populated England on a measurement specifically designed to capture the impact of human activity — including physical alterations — on watercourses.

The article also claims that customer bills are rising, and leakage has gone up. The first point is highly misleading and the second is incorrect. Bills will have decreased by 5 per cent in real terms between 2015 and 2020 and are set to fall further by at least 4 per cent in real terms by 2025, once the current industry price review concludes. Leakage has been reduced by a third since the mid-1990s.

Overall, the article gives a deeply flawed representation of the significant amount of work the water industry is doing to improve river health in England.

This piece first appeared in Financial Times