21st Century Rivers:
From Recovery to Renewal

Over much of the last 100 years our rivers have been in a state of crisis. The water industry has played a leading part in the fightback, but the truth is that this is not enough. Now we’re calling for a new deal for rivers in England. Find out about the actions we’re taking and our ten recommendations.

As recently as the early 1990s, over a fifth of sewage was not being treated properly, killing huge swathes of life in oxygen ‘dead zones’. The water industry is proud to have played a leading part in the fightback.

Over the last 30 years we have:

  • invested £30 billion in the environment
  • cut the number of beaches that fail legal standards from over a third to just 0.5%
  • cut ammonia emissions by 70%, phosphates by 60%, and toxic metals like cadmium and mercury by 50%
  • reduced serious pollution incidents by 90% to reach the lowest levels ever recorded
  • seen habitats and species recover, including those sensitive to water quality, like the return in the early 2000s of seal colonies in the Thames Estuary, and the recovery in recent decades of England’s otter population
Percentage of survey sites where presence of otters was recorded – recovery as an example of species restoration. Source: Defra, UK Biodiversity Indicators

There are three urgent new challenges


Climate change will change river flows, increase the concentration of pollutants, and increase the growth of algae.

Huge investment has failed

Huge investment has failed to increase the 14% of rivers rated good since 2009.


The public’s expectations for their rivers has been completely transformed as water quality improved, with massive increase in the popularity of activities like angling, water sports and open swimming over the last 20 years.

Water UK 21st Century Rivers

We call for a new deal for rivers.

We are asking everyone — from river users and customer groups, to environmental NGOs, to work with us on a new approach that responds to these challenges. Crucially, with other industries responsible for three-quarters of the reasons for harm in rivers, this needs a new, combined, national endeavour that does things differently.


The water industry has confirmed investment plans to reduce most of the reasons for not achieving good ecological status as laid out in the diagram opposite. For example, over the next five years the water industry will spend £1.1 billion tackling overflows, while wastewater treatment will also shrink due to a major expansion of programmes that remove phosphorus and other nutrients. But, particularly in other sectors, there are few similar, credible plans to reduce many of the pressures listed here. It is unclear how or when we will see those start to change; equally, we need to increase the impact and speed of those plans that do exist.

The ten recommendations here are intended to change that. We want to see a new, jointly-owned National Plan for Rivers that also includes new mechanisms for accountability, legal protection and local empowerment. This should be supported by new tools to help people, improve monitoring and prioritise nature. We want to see early changes on abstraction, storm overflows and a new approach to ‘bathing rivers’. Collectively, this will lead to the shift we need: from ad hoc changes to individual problems towards a systematic plan that deals with all the areas described in Figure 2.


Rivers in England: Reasons for Not Achieving Good Ecological Status by Sector and Activity

Figure 2. Source: Environment Agency
*Other includes: Navigation | Recreation | Waste

Ten Actions for Change

A New Approach

  • 1 A National Plan for Rivers
  • 2 Protection in Law
  • 3 Local Empowerment
  • 4 Accountability

Supported by New Tools

  • 5 Next-Generation Monitoring
  • 6 Support for People
  • 7 Prioritising Nature

Delivering Early Changes

  • 8 Abstraction
  • 9 Storm Overflows
  • 10 Bathing Rivers

Water UK 21st Century Rivers

Ten Actions for Change: A Summary

A National Plan for Rivers:

Create a clear, single, evidence-based, long-term plan for rivers between Government, regulators, water companies, agriculture, highways and other sectors. This will help guide and prioritise investment and policy change, demonstrate how we will achieve good ecological status nationally, and establish an approach for going further, faster.