Good river quality for now but new ecological methods mean results will drop

The government released its river water quality results this week, one of the 15 headline indicators of sustainable development. At the same time it announced that it was changing its methods of assessment in order to prepare for the stringent nature of the water framework directive.

According to the current method of assessment, approximately 95% of UK rivers are of good or fair chemical quality, and 95% were of good or fair biological quality, showing very little change since 2000.

However, Defra and the Environment Agency announced new ways of measuring water quality in order to meet the assessment needs of the EU water framework directive (WFD).

Current monitoring systems look mostly at measuring pollution from point sources such as discharges from factories and sewage works and take into account such things as chemical content and dissolved oxygen to calculate river health. However, the new measurements, required under the WFD, will have to look at the ecology of the whole water environment.

They will have to identify the impacts from rural and urban diffuse pollution, currently not measured, as well as fisheries, over-abstraction and man made changes to the banks and beds of river courses.

Elliot Morley, Environment Minister said: “To put these changes into some sort of perspective; the methods used currently show us how well fish breathe and eat. The new figures will also show us how well they are able to reproduce and the overall quality of their habitat. They will also show whether our water courses contain the right balance of fish species, aquatic plants and invertebrates.”

The new methods of assessment, and the new quality indicators, mean that approximately 82% of UK water bodies are at risk of failing the new EU WFD standards.

Mr Morley pointed out that, as point source pollution problems had largely been tackled, diffuse pollution was now the main area to be tackled. However, by its very nature it would be a difficult problem to face.

He highlighted the fact that 70% of diffuse pollution came from agriculture and that Defra was currently consulting on such initiatives as a tax on certain agricultural chemicals which could be levied so as to defer farmers from over use. Diffuse pollution such as this can percolate through the soil and pollute groundwater as well as run off into river and lake water.

The average family spends £20 per year through their water bills in removing agricultural chemicals from drinking water, Mr Morley said.

However, he also pointed out that factors such as urban run off and traffic pollution played a major part in diffuse pollution and that problem solving measures were quite likely to be locally based initiatives dealt with at individual catchment level.

The WFD itself will divide the country up into catchment areas for each river basin so that local solutions can be implemented, and pollution problems be addressed.

“Our understanding of environment issues has moved on since the current monitoring system was first introduced. I think its fair to say the bar is now being raised. The use of increasingly sophisticated technology as well as the wide-ranging requirements of the WFD means we are now able to make use of modern day science to better understand and address the pressures our actions have on the waters in our environment,” Mr Morley concluded.

The WFD will not come into force until 2015 but the targets are so strict that work must start now in order to meet them in tome.

By David Hopkins

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