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The truth about English rivers

Our country’s rivers play an integral role in the health of our nation. They provide much of the water on which we all depend, but also support wildlife, ecosystems and recreation, and are a central part of our national heritage.

There is, understandably, considerable media interest in this topic - just last week the BBC ran a series of stories on the health of our rivers. However, some recent coverage has given a distorted and misleading picture of this vital resource.

Last month the Environment Agency published their Environmental Performance Assessment, which ranked companies in terms of their performance in protecting our rivers and waterways from pollution. Although six out of the nine companies achieved ‘good’ or better ratings, the findings represent a decline on the previous year, and so a disappointing moment for the industry given the major progress made over the last twenty years.

It is right that water companies are subject to the utmost scrutiny from regulators, the public and the press, and it is unsurprising given the issues that some of their comment will be heartfelt and demanding. However, some inaccurate reporting has recently appeared on both the state of rivers and the role of water companies.

One such article published recently by The Times drew a public rebuke from The Environment Agency’s chair Emma Howard Boyd who noted that: “Water quality in our rivers is now better that at any time since the start of the Industrial Revolution.”

We recognise the issues are complex – changes in standards, for example, make comparisons difficult, and to those outside the sector it can be hard to work out who is responsible for different issues. But it is important that the sector and commentators are working from the same, shared set of facts about reality on the ground.

Much of the coverage makes false comparisons between English rivers and those of other European countries, which fail to take into account differences in urbanisation and population density. Equally, assertions that companies are failing to comply with the Water Framework Directive ignore the fact that what is claimed as a fall in performance is actually the result of a change in measurement within the period, with performance actually improving based on the previous measurement approach.

When we talk about pollution incidents it is important to understand that many of these are not due to the fault of water companies. Other sources of pollution include agriculture, mining, roads and industry. Indeed, agriculture is the largest source of pollution of this kind, being responsible for 542 breaches compared with 359 for the water industry.

The coverage also does not properly distinguish the different ways in which pollution (including, but not limited to, sewage) enters the environment and who should hold responsibility for it. For example, storm overflows are a deliberate design of many European sewerage systems, preventing flooding of properties by releasing diluted sewage from outfalls licensed by the Environment Agency for that purpose, usually in areas where the environment can – in large part – handle it.  There will be occasions when the failings of water companies make them a legitimate target for criticism, but it is perverse to blame water companies for something which is the intended result of a longstanding system.

The tacit suggestion in many of the articles published is that water companies are complacent about their environmental responsibilities. This is simply not the case. For example, the coverage makes no reference to the £5 billion companies will spend on the environment over the coming five years, including work to improve compliance with Good Ecological Status, such as a comprehensive £2.2billion programme to remove further phosphorus from sewage effluent between 2020 and 2025.

Nor is proper consideration given to the commitments in companies’ business plans from 2020 to meet specific pollution-related targets. These significant investments and improvements are highlighted by the Green Alliance in their 2018 report, ‘From Blue to Green’, in which they recognise the contribution of the water industry in generating environmental improvements and also the accountability of other sectors for the decline of the natural environment in the UK. Indeed, the industry aims to bring about a reduction in serious pollution incidents by 90% by the end of 2025.

These commitments seek to build on what has already been achieved by water companies.  By 2020 the industry will have invested around £25 billion into environmental work, putting in more advanced treatment methods to improve the quality of our waterways. This will mean around 10,000 miles of UK rivers have been improved and protected since 1995.

Thanks to this investment wildlife is flourishing in our rivers, whereas 30 years ago Britain was known as ‘The Dirty Man of Europe’ due to badly polluted rivers, today trout and salmon have returned to urban rivers, and seals are increasingly being seen in the Thames. Otters have now been spotted in every county in England after they were on the verge of being wiped out.

Indeed, a recent report from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology found that investment by UK water companies has resulted in increased biodiversity in UK rivers since 1991 including growth in numbers of freshwater invertebrates.

As their future commitments indicate, companies recognise that there is much more to do to build on the progress achieved to date.  Working with regulators and key stakeholders, they remain fully committed to ensuring we have rivers for everyone to enjoy and of which we can all be proud.