English and Welsh Water Quality Improves – But Still A Very Long Way To Go

Water quality in England and Wales has improved for the nineteenth year in a row the Environment Agency announced today. Seven out of 10 English rivers and nine out of 10 Welsh rivers achieved what is termed “very good” or “good” status in terms of chemical and biological water quality in 2008. Wildlife has been returning to some of these rivers. 50 years ago, no salmon were seen on the River Tyne, but already this year more than 10,000 have been recorded migrating up river. Meanwhile otters have this year been recorded in both Greater Manchester and the lower Thames for the first time in 40 years. After moving into Sussex this year, otters can now once again be found in every English county.

However, only five of the 6,114 rivers in England and Wales are in pristine condition, and more than three-quarters are expected to fail new European quality standards. The European Water Framework Directive, which became law in the UK in 2003, sets even higher quality standards, using a wider and more sophisticated range of more than 30 different measures. Only 26% of rivers in England and Wales are classified as “good” under the new requirements, and only five satisfy the highest standards. These are in remote areas of Northumberland and Wales.

Under the new standards, 117 rivers are classified as being in bad condition, ranked on a par with the dirtiest rivers in eastern Europe, a further 742 are considered to be in “poor condition” and 3,654, or 60%, are in “moderate” condition. This presents a headache for the government because it is legally required by Europe to ensure that 95% of all British rivers are in “good” ecological condition by 2015. At the present rate of improvement, only a further 5% will meet the conditions by 2015. This could eventually leave Britain open to unlimited fines and court cases on a European level.

Lakes are faring no better, with only one out of 762 English and Welsh lakes considered to be of high status, and seven considered “bad”. None were named by the agency but it admits nearly 70% of lakes are in line to miss the targets.
It is estimated that it could cost £9bn to get 95% of UK rivers to “good” status by 2015. If, as expected, this proves impossible, the EU allows interim targets to be set for 2015 and 2021.

The government is currently preparing its River Basin Management Plans, which will be published on 22 December 2009. These will outline the targets and methods used to improve water quality in 11 catchment areas. A six-month consultation took place on the proposed plans earlier in the year. A coalition of major NGOs declared that the proposals showed ‘an unacceptably weak level of ambition’. Perhaps the EU will help the UK become more ambitious.

For further details, visit the ‘Our Rivers’ website.