The UK government is to diverge from the EU’s standards for monitoring water quality in England, it can be revealed.
Activists are concerned that the shift in strategy may result in increased contamination of rivers and waterways in England, should the updated measurement techniques be less stringent.
During its time in the European Union, England adhered to the water framework directive (WFD), which mandated an annual national assessment of rivers for chemical and ecological purposes. Following Brexit, the WFD was incorporated into English legislation, but the government opted to eliminate the obligation for yearly evaluations.
The UK has recently deviated from the environmental regulations set by the EU. A recent study discovered that a number of harmful chemicals and pesticides, which were banned in the EU after Brexit, are still allowed for use in the UK. Additionally, government officials are trying to eliminate EU-based regulations on sewage pollution for construction companies.
During the most recent full water assessments in 2019, only 14% of rivers were deemed to be in good ecological condition and none met the standards for good chemical health. The government has stated that it has no plans to provide a comprehensive update until 2025, which is the latest acceptable date according to the new WFD regulations.
The Guardian can reveal that the government will be using its own, as yet undisclosed methodology to assess river health. Activists say this may make it harder to compare the state of the country’s rivers against those in the EU, and will leave the public in the dark over pollution from sewage and agriculture.
Government representatives held a meeting with various stakeholders to inform them about the alteration. According to a representative from an NGO who was present at the meeting, officials stated that the change would no longer consider data for evaluating progress towards the government’s environmental improvement plan. Instead, they are considering using the Natural Capital Ecosystem Assessment (NCEA) to assess performance. The NGO representative raised concerns about the progress of the NCEA and its suitability for this purpose.
The Guardian was informed by a representative from the Environment Agency that the assessment process will no longer utilize WFD data. The spokesperson stated that a collaborative effort between Defra, Natural England, Environment Agency, Forest Research, and the Join Nature Conservation Committee, known as NCEA, combines skills and knowledge to create a more thorough understanding of our environment. This includes monitoring the quality and quantity of natural resources, evaluating the effects or necessity of interventions, and aiding in the conservation and preservation of our natural assets.
In 2020, data was released that embarrassed the government as it showed that none of the rivers in England were in a good chemical state. It is now uncertain if the data indicating any improvements will be made public prior to the upcoming general election.
Stuart Singleton-White, from the Angling Trust, expressed that the WFD has been crucial in helping us comprehend the condition of our rivers, lakes, and groundwater. Although it may not present a complete picture, it serves as a valuable starting point. Previous evaluations have revealed a decline rather than an improvement. The decision to delay a full assessment until 2025 instead of 2022 only creates uncertainty and deprives the public of a clear understanding of the state of our rivers.
During the stakeholder meeting, government officials stated that the Covid-19 pandemic and budget constraints limited the number of water bodies assessed in 2022. They assured attendees that other monitoring data would be utilized to maintain accurate assessments of water quality. However, they emphasized that the limited 2022 assessments would not be used to make assumptions about the overall state of water quality nationwide, as this could introduce bias into the data. The 2022 data revealed a decline in the condition of the assessed sites.
Tim Farron, the spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats on environmental issues, expressed disappointment in the government’s handling of sewage dumping. He believes that by reducing assessments, the extent of damage caused by water companies cannot be accurately determined. This is unacceptable and a complete restructuring of the system is necessary, including abolishing Ofwat and establishing a stronger regulatory body. Regular testing must also be implemented to fully understand the impact on our countryside.
An official from the Environment Agency stated that enhancing the quality of water is a top priority for us. We follow guidelines set by the water environment regulations to determine our permitting and enforcement processes. This requires a strong foundation of evidence, and we are collaborating with others to gather more real-time data. The next comprehensive evaluation of classifications for all water bodies will occur in 2025. There are no significant modifications planned for the classification methodology, including the “one out, all out” system. Each individual water body will be assigned a classification.