EA head signals desire to change rule that exposes extent of river pollution

Environment Agency’s James Bevan says he wants to change law that provides tough water testing regime

The head of the Environment Agency has signalled he wants to change a key regulation on water quality which repeatedly exposes how English rivers are being choked in a cocktail of sewage and agricultural pollution.

James Bevan, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, said he wanted to change the water framework directive, the law that provides a tough testing regime for English rivers. It provides a legal requirement that 75% of English rivers be in good health under its testing regime by 2027.

Data shows that currently no river passes tests for both ecological and chemical health as a result of a cocktail of pollution from sewage, agricultural runoff and industry.

Environmental groups say the regulations are vital as a “legal lens” to show people the blighted state of the river environment.

Defra’s annual report last week revealed that no progress had been made in the last year on improving river water quality, with just 16% deemed to be in good ecological state, the same as in 2016. The lack of progress means the government is unlikely to meet the legal threshold of 75% of rivers achieving good status by 2027 under the water framework directive (WFD).

It is one of 570 laws listed for removal or amendment by December 2023 under the government’s retained EU law bill, a move which environmental groups say amounts to a deregulatory free-for-all.

Bevan in a speech this week supported the wholesale removal and rewriting of the laws, saying it was a great opportunity to deliver better regulation and better outcomes for people, for business and for nature.

“The government has embarked on an exercise to remove, revise or retain the body of EU-derived law currently in force, much of which is the basis for most environmental regulation in this country. We welcome that,” he said.

He said the water framework directive was a key law he would change, claiming the testing regime was too complex and could be misleading about the real state of those waters.

“Because the directive stipulates that waters can only get ‘good’ status if they tick all of several different boxes, it can force regulators to focus time and resources on indicators that may not make much difference to the actual water quality, taking focus away from things that would,” said Bevan.

“I wouldn’t repeal the WFD. But I would reform it, to ensure it drives action that will deliver the clean and plentiful water we all want.”

Bevan’s comments come as data shows Environment Agency testing of English rivers has plummeted to a 10-year low and the failure to sample is the greatest threat to river health.

Richard Benwell, of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said the WFD targets had been a major driver of public and private investment in nature for many years.

“They’ve also been a legal lens that has opened people’s eyes to the blighted state of our river environment, which may finally lead to change,” he said. He said removing the overarching target that 75% of rivers must be in good health by 2027 would put future investment and future accountability at risk.

“It would be wrong to ditch the target, and it is concerning that the government has missed out a long-term target for overall water quality in its Environment Act proposals.”

He said Bevan was correct that there needed to be better ways to recognise and incentivise progress toward “good” status. But he added: “That can be achieved by better monitoring and reporting of water quality, and by giving polluters clear legal responsibility for cleanup. The trick is that new responsibilities should be set as a way to deliver overall river quality targets, not as a replacement.”

Mark Lloyd, of the Rivers’ Trust said: “We must … keep measuring ourselves against the laudable aims set out in Water Framework Directive, which was driven by the UK government in the first place, and is an excellent framework for understanding the health of rivers and other waterbodies.”


Sandra Laville

The GuardianTramp

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