Flow many reasons

A campaign by the Environmental Industries Commission urges the Government to make river quality targets more ambitious. Chris Hoggart and Tristan Stubbs explain why its success is vital for both the environment and the economy.

In recent months, the quality of river water in Britain has made headlines in national newspapers as well as on television and radio. The Environment Agency (EA) conducted a survey of rivers across the country as part of its Draft River Basin Management Plans, which are due to be published on December 22.

The results make for depressing reading.

At present, only 21% of rivers in England and 33% in Wales are of Good Ecological Status according to stipulations set out in the European Union's Water Framework Directive (WFD). The EA's aim is to increase this proportion to just 26% and 35%, respectively, by 2015.

In response to these figures the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), a trade association linking more than 300 companies in environmental technology and services, has launched a high-level campaign urging government and officials to make river water quality targets more ambitious.

The campaign, involving letters to key ministers and MPs, and an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons (EDM 136), calls on the Government to put pressure on the agency to improve their targets for river cleanliness.

Public awareness
The campaign has already attracted a lot of interest in Westminster. Politicians are cottoning on to the fact that water issues are gaining increasing prominence in the public's awareness of environmental issues, not least with the floods that we saw in the North-west last month.

Add to this the fact that climate change will mean drier summers and water resources declining in many areas, and you have a recipe for policies that voters can really get their teeth into.

Yet, sadly, the Environment Agency's testing targets suggest that it, at least, is not pulling its weight when it comes to a critical plank of the water management agenda. And not only is the agency's level of ambition disappointingly low, the figures that it often cites in its own defence do not represent the full picture of river water pollution.
Ask the agency, and it will tell you two things: First, that the previous General Quality Assessment (GQA) testing regime, which was in place before the Water Framework Directive came into play, had a marked beneficial effect on river quality in England and Wales
  • Second, it will argue that the current figures for 'Good' status rivers are in fact 45% for England and 51% for Wales, and that its intention is to achieve a status of 48% and 53 respectively
  • It is true that the GQA brought significant improvements in river water quality. But why stop there?

    The WFD targets are far more stringent. They work on a 'one out, all out' basis, whereby if one sample shows up negative, the rest are also determined to have failed.

    The 'Good' status figures that the agency quotes are worked out according to these rules, but there is a crucial caveat. While the agency's numbers are true for the biological health of rivers, the far lower percentages mentioned in EIC's Early Day Motion describe rivers' overall ecological health, which includes chemical status as well.

    Greater ambition
    So there's a lack of ambition here on two fronts - the agency should be doing more to drive transparency, as well as improving river water quality to the best standards we have available. EIC is pushing this issue because greater ambition will bring obvious advantages to the environment.

    It will also have a significant positive economic effect, worth up to £3.5B. That is the conclusion reached by Defra's own impact assessment on the costs and benefits of introducing the Water Framework Directive regime. The amount includes benefits to the water management companies that EIC represents. Not only that, but continuing to use the old GQA system would actually mean £1B extra in costs, along with less impressive gains for river water quality.

    The UK's water industry leads the world in innovation, so any lack of regulatory ambition will have a direct outcome on its global competitive advantage, and a direct outcome on the sustainability of jobs in the sector.

    There is not much time to make these points before the River Basin plans are published. Our campaign comes at a crucial moment to underline the Agency's narrow vision for the testing regime. We have taken the argument to MPs that there is a worrying lack of leadership here from the Government, which ought to be urgently pressing the Agency to beef up its plans.

    The WFD targets now need to be made part of a fully integrated package, to give the vulnerable future of river water quality and water supply the attention it deserves. n

    Chris Hoggart, of MWH, chairs EIC's Water Management Working Group; and Tristan Stubbs is the EIC's public affairs manager.
    W: www.eic-uk.co.uk

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