The sorry state of our waters

The sorry state of our waters


Environment Agency data released recently revealed that not a single river, lake, estuary or coastal water monitored by the Agency is in good health. This is despite a near-20-year-old legal commitment by Government to bring all England’s waters to “Good Status” by 2027. We now appear on track to miss this target spectacularly – but why? And what does this mean for freshwater wildlife, and the waters we swim, paddle, play and fish in?

What is “good status”?

To achieve Good Status overall, waters must meet a series of targets relating to fish, plants and other aquatic communities (“Good Ecological Status”) as well as certain pollutants (“Good Chemical Status”), in an approach known as “the one-out, all-out rule”. This rule says that if any one target is missed, the entire waterbody fails because it’s deemed not to be in good enough condition to provide for nature and for society. To use an analogy, a houseplant with plenty of soil in its pot but that you forget to water isn’t going to thrive – the rule makes good biological sense. 

Chimney Meadows river

Photo credit: Kate Titford

Failure of Chemical Targets

The reason for the dramatic drop we see in the latest figures – from 16% of waters classed as “Good” in 2016, to zero now – is because every single waterbody failed to meet standards for Priority Hazardous Substances. These are a ‘motley crew’ of chemicals, from the seemingly benign (used in batteries, detergents, as solvents, coolants, stain repellents and flame retardants in furniture) to the intentionally harmful (including a range of fungicides, herbicides and insecticides). What they have in common is that they are all damaging to aquatic life.

However this sudden failure doesn’t mean that pollution has recently worsened; the change is because the way we monitor chemicals in our environment has improved.

We are now seeing for the first time how badly polluted our waters really are.

Instead of assessing the concentration of chemicals in water itself, which only provides a snapshot in time, monitoring now looks at the levels of chemicals in animals such as fish, crayfish and mussels, signalling the exposure of these species to toxic chemicals over the course of their lives. This is a more meaningful way of seeing whether our waters are able to support healthy populations of native wildlife.

Unfortunately, these figures were released too late to feature in the majority of responses to a major EA consultation on the state of our water environment, which closed last week. The Wildlife Trusts’ response to “Challenges and Choices” already highlighted the need to tackle chemical pollution, and a panel of young people from The Wildlife Trust-led ‘Our Bright Future’ programme expressed the unanimous view in their submission that polluting businesses “should be held accountable for their activities that impact the water environment”. These new figures must surely prompt a renewed focus on tackling both legacy pollution and new emissions.

Many of the chemicals in question are ‘Persistent Pollutants’ that survive almost indefinitely in the environment – although now heavily regulated and no longer used, they continue to leach into watercourses from landfill sites or discarded products. Many landfills were constructed before regulation required them to be lined or sealed to prevent pollutants escaping, and worse, there are around 1500 historic landfill sites around our coastline which are vulnerable to coastal flooding and erosion, increasingly leaking contaminants into the sea. Until now the ‘cost-benefit’ of doing anything about them hasn’t stacked up, but maybe this new data will help to change that.

We also clearly need a stronger approach to assessing and regulating new chemicals as they’re developed, so that we can prevent the release of the ‘persistent pollutants’ of the future, protecting our environment and human health. Government needs to create a robust system to replace the chemical control regime, REACH, that we will lose access to as a result of leaving the EU.


Veolia Landfill Site, Pitsea, Essex, UK

Veolia Landfill Site, Pitsea, Essex, UK - Terry Whittaker/2020VISION

Status quo on Ecological Targets

The other half of the equation, Ecological Status, also remains a concern. In the three years since data was last published, only 10 additional waterbodies have been brought to a standard of Good Ecological Status or above. Almost 4,000 still fail. This is dismal news - yet the figures hide a more complex picture, for example that more waters are hitting targets for phosphate levels, nitrates, invertebrates and other components of ecological status. This points to the need for a better way of recognising where progress has been made – reporting not just the overall status but the individual elements that have improved.

These improvements are ‘green shoots’, the tentative beginnings of a much-needed recovery, - but there are still areas holding us back. Nutrient pollution from agriculture, washed off fields and farms; and from wastewater, discharged into watercourses after treatment which fails to remove these ecosystem-altering pollutants, impacts numerous waterbodies.

Investment in wastewater treatment, and financial and practical support to help farmers go beyond the legal minimums, are needed to help turn the fortune of our waters around. Upgrading infrastructure, progressing promising new techniques like treatment wetlands, providing support through Environmental Land Management funding, and expanding water industry programmes like South West Water’s ‘Upstream Thinking’ and Severn Trent Water’s STEPS will all play a part.

The wider water environment

And what about the rest of our waters? Although we know about the condition of the sites we currently monitor, smaller waters like ponds, ditches, flushes, headwater streams and even small lakes are excluded. These habitats support huge amounts of freshwater biodiversity and the lack of recognition of this through monitoring, and resultant action, is a massive gap.

Positively, Government’s landmark Environment Bill will ensure that we take action to enhance all parts of our water environment. Water can and should be a central part of the Nature Recovery Network that will map out the strategic restoration of natural habitats and species. Having left the EU, the Bill is Government’s opportunity to build on the foundations of existing water protections and develop our own approach to restoring catchment health. Legally binding targets set through the Bill could be used to drive efforts to restore our waters and wetlands to a more natural state, and as the Bill returns to Parliament this autumn we’ll be keeping the pressure on through our work with Greener UK to encourage Government to grasp this opportunity.

In this context, we could consider our new knowledge about the state of our waters depressing, a failure, a task too hard. Or we could take the view that we have never known so much about where, how, and why we need to start fixing things.