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Managing and protecting our rivers and waterways

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A picture of some still water surrounded by green foliage and trees

There have been a number of critical pieces in recent days on the quality of our rivers and waterways, including a comment piece from Griff Rhys Jones in MailOnline and George Monbiot’s column in The Guardian.

We all want clean water in our rivers and lakes. Both the Environment Agency (EA) and Defra are working hard to achieve this, although clearly everyone must play their part – including water companies, businesses, farmers and the public.

Both pieces raise important concerns around storm overflows, fly-tipping, chalk streams and agricultural waste, which are addressed below.

Storm overflows

England has a combined sewage system made up of hundreds of thousands of kilometres of sewers, built by the Victorians, in many urban centres.  This means that clean rainwater and waste water from toilets, bathrooms and kitchens are conveyed in the same pipe to a sewage treatment works.

During heavy rainfall the capacity of these pipes can be exceeded, which means possible inundation of sewage works and the potential to back up and flood homes, roads and open spaces, unless it is allowed to spill elsewhere. Storm overflows were developed as a way to reduce the risk of sewage backing up during heavy rainfall.

We do, however, need to ensure that storm overflows are only used when absolutely necessary. The EA has identified over 700 storm overflows to be investigated and over 200 overflows to be improved in England within the period 2020-2025.

When water companies do damage the environment, whether it is through polluting our waters or breaching permit conditions, the EA will always take enforcement action against them, including civil sanctions. The EA successfully brought forward four water company prosecutions in 2019, resulting in £1,297,000 in fines.

Action on fly-tipping

Both pieces also refer to a lack of action when it comes to fly-tipping. Last year, the Environment Agency dealt with 76,777 environmental incidents across the country – the equivalent of one every seven minutes. Every single one of these incidents are fully investigated by our officers and we never hesitate to take action against those responsible.

Local authorities have a range of powers at their disposal, such as issuing on-the-spot fines and to stop, search and seize vehicles suspected of being used for fly-tipping. In 2018/19, local authorities carried out 2,397 prosecutions for fly-tipping, with over 96% resulting in conviction. The number of fixed penalty notices issued also continues to increase, up 11% to 76,000 from the previous period.

Safeguarding chalk streams

Our chalk streams are rare, ecologically vital and biodiverse. Through the EA’s Restoring Sustainable Abstraction Programme, changes have been made to 124 licences to protect chalk streams, returning over 37 billion litres of water to chalk streams and preventing a further 100 billion litres being abstracted.

Further sustainability reductions of c.100 million litres per day will be delivered in the next 5 years (by March 2025) through the Water Industry National Environment Programme.

Encouraging sustainable farming

Leaving the EU provides the opportunity to change how we manage our agricultural sector. Under our proposed Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme there will be incentives for more sustainable farming. Farmers will be supported in their work to care for the environment, improve animal welfare and provide other ‘public goods’, including clean and plentiful water.

Looking ahead

Between 1990 and 2020 the water industry will have invested about £25 billion in environmental improvement work, much of it to improve water quality. There is much still to do. Defra, the Environment Agency and Ofwat will continue to work with industry to drive further improvements.

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  1. Comment by Paul Jennings posted on

    Well said Mike.

  2. Comment by Andrew posted on

    It's not really answered the questioned raised in the articles. Just deflecting the questions and being spinning the truth of the issue. Just be better EA.

  3. Comment by Geoff Roberts posted on

    Is my opinion this piece is overly self congratulatory. Funding for the environment part of the agency has been dramatically cut over recent years and whilst I work closely with them and know the commitment of individual members of staff, there are not enough of them and the infrastructure they have available is significantly under-resourced. I also have to ask why why essential data to health as work together on the next revision of river basin management plans is still not available. The lack of publication of this data is, at the very least, suspicious. I am trying to plan improvements to the water courses Apollo which my charity operates using five-year-old data. This is not acceptable and covid-19 cannot be an excuse as the vast majority of the data was collected beforehand. Time to acknowledge some of the problems rather than continue writing pieces such as this which are effectively showing yourselves in denial.

  4. Comment by Ian Gregory posted on

    Our river would be a different river if the phosphate levels were reduced

  5. Comment by William Hughes-Games posted on

  6. Comment by Dave Stanley posted on

    The largest “public good” that farmers should provide is that of a rapid increase in organic matter (carbon) in our soils. This requires the elimination of nitrate fertilisers, delivery of carbon sequestration to soil, mitigation of Climate Change, flood and drought mitigation, enhancement of biodiversity, improvement in human health- reduced costs to NHS.
    Soil - along with water and sun is essential to life on this planet. Why is soil not considered a public good??

  7. Comment by Mark in Molesey posted on

    Not one mention of the incompetence in connection of the illegal moorings by slum boats. The river Thames is systematically being abused by slum boats, antisocial behaviour and dumping sewage overboard. Just when will the Ea step up and take responsibility.

  8. Comment by Michael Heylin OBE posted on

    Why do you find it necessary to lie in your press releases. The fairy tale about storm overflows is just that; spin on the truth. The truth is these are licensed overflows to protect the water industry from making the STW storage capacity sufficient to stop overflows. If the STWs were large enough there would be no danger of raw sewage backing up. I have never read such tripe, not even from Defra! The concept of licensing any business to pour raw sewage into rivers and canals is beyond belief in the 21st Century. Spin all you want, we will continue to tell the public the truth.

    • Replies to Michael Heylin OBE>

      Comment by Geoff Roberts posted on

      I don't know what you got your OBE for but it clearly wasn't an understanding of the historical and technical issues associated with CSOs.
      What is written here may well be unacceptable in the modern age, but it is categorically NOT a 'lie'.
      You weaken your argument by bandying around your own untruths.