Official figures reveal not one river or lake in England is in good health

Statement from Wildlife and Countryside Link

New figures from the Environment Agency have been released today revealing that 0% of river, lakes and streams are classed as in good health in England, despite a target for all waters to be in good health by 2027. When figures were last published in 2016, 16% of waters were classed as good. 

The change represents more accurate measurements, that reveal the true poor state of our waters, rather than a change in underlying condition, where there has been no progress. Environment experts say the figures demonstrate that the Government needs to urgently invest in turning our failing rivers into thriving blue corridors.

The new Environment Agency figures show that:
• Every single surfacewater body monitored by the Environment Agency in England has failed stricter new chemical standards, meaning that none have a clean bill of health overall
• The failure rate on many other measures of good water health has shown little or no improvement, the most important being assessments of Ecological Status. Only 16% of English waters were classed in good ecological health for in 2016, with the figure remaining 16% in 2019.
• The figures released today show that the proportion of English waters in good health is one of the worst in Europe, with a European average of 40% of surface water bodies in good health
• Our rivers and lakes are also the least healthy in the UK, with waterbodies in Scotland at 65.7%, rivers in Wales at 46% and 31.3% of rivers in Northern Ireland classed in good health 
• The Governments’ target in its 25 Year Environment Plan for 75% of waterbodies in England to be in good condition ‘as soon as possible’ (ahead of the 2027 target for all waters) is now all but unachievable
• Current monitoring overlooks many of the highest quality waters – headwater streams, ponds and small lakes – so we have little idea how these are faring

Richard Benwell, CEO of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: ‘Chemicals, sewage, manure, and plastic are polluting our rivers, invasive weeds are choking them, and climate change and over-use are drying them out. Urgent investment is needed now to turn our suffering waters into thriving blue corridors for wildlife. It means investment, industry change, and improved standards are essential, with the legal underpinning in the Environment Bill to make our waters well again.’

Ali Morse of the Wildlife Trusts and Chair of Blueprint for Water, said: ‘Healthy waters are essential for people and nature to survive, and for businesses to thrive, yet none of our rivers are now classed as being in good health. This affects our crops, our wildlife, the nature sites we love to visit, our water bills and so much more. We need the Government to ensure we have the legal commitments, high standards, pollution prevention and funding to turn the tide for our rivers.’

New chemical standards mean that previously untested for chemicals are included in this analysis that weren’t included in 2016 and some previously tested-for chemicals must meet tougher targets. These tougher standards are vital as chemical pollution in our rivers has been masked in assessments for years and can impact on human and wildlife health. 

The focus should not however be exclusively on the failures of our waters on chemical standards there has also been little progress on many other of the measures assessed. It is particularly worrying that there has been no improvement in overall ecological health (just 16% pass this measure) as this considers whether our waters are healthy enough to support the fish, invertebrates and aquatic plants that would naturally be found there, either by assessing the creatures themselves, or the conditions that they need. 

Since 2016 only an additional 10 waterbodies have attained an ecological status of good or above, rising to 760 of over four and a half thousand. That it is so difficult to improve overall health highlights the range of pressures that our waters face. Within this overall poor picture there have been some slight improvements in the individual components that make up this assessment, such as fewer waters failing Phosphate and Nitrate standards (chemicals that contribute to algal blooms), and an improvement in the number of waterbodies with healthy invertebrate populations – but whilst these improvements are welcome, the static trend in overall status shows that our waters are not functioning as healthy systems overall. 

Nature groups are concerned at the potential that standards used to assess our water quality may be watered down in the Environment Bill and are urging the Government to:
• Commit in law to ambitious targets to improve our waters through the Environment Bill, backed up by radical and robust measures to make our waters healthy
• Avoid watering down standards – keep, and enhance, the strong standards of the Water Framework Directive, properly fund monitoring by the regulators and provide an additional £2m per year for collaborative monitoring involving communities and scientists.. We need robust assessments of our waters’ health to ensure they are restored
• Make water health the top priority for Ofwat, ensuring that reductions in customer bills aren’t prioritised over the investment needed to fund measures to get England’s waters healthy, providing sustainable water supplies in the face of climate change 
• Step-up measures to tackle the top causes of water pollution[2]by:
– Taking action to tackle the pollutants already in our waters where the ecological benefits will be greatest and ensuring robust assessment of, and protections on, ‘future’ pollutants to prevent harmful chemicals entering our environment in the first place;
– Legislate for water companies to phase out combined sewer overflows, with heavy fines for pollution breaches; and 
– Provide advice and support to enable land managers to comply with pollution regulations, and fund additional improvements through ELM, via improved soil management, buffer strips and reduced use of chemicals.
• Invest more in tackling invasive species – with just 7 invasive plants costing more than £21mn to manage in British waterways annually, it is key for the Government to follow the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendations to increase invasive species defence spending from £1m p.a. to £6m p.a.


Notes to Editors:

1. Wildlife and Countryside Link is the largest environment and wildlife coalition in England, bringing together 57 organisations to use their strong joint voice for the protection of nature. Our members campaign to conserve, enhance and access our landscapes, animals, plants, habitats, rivers and seas. Together we have the support of over eight million people in the UK and directly protect over 750,000 hectares of land and 800 miles of coastline.
2. Along with man-made chemicals, phosphorus is a main cause of river pollution. In 2016 55% of English rivers in poor status for phosphorus. The main causes are sewage and run-off from agricultural land. This can result in excessive algae and plant growth which can choke water pipes and damage wildlife habitats.