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World Rivers Day – protecting our nation’s rivers

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A river with green trees and bushes along the banks

Today marks World Rivers Day – a celebration of rivers across the world and the importance of protecting them.

There are approximately 240,600km of rivers and streams in England, providing important habitats for fish and wildlife to thrive.

The Environment Agency plays a critical role in delivering the protection and enhancement that our rivers need.

  • Our regulatory role has led to £5bn of investment over the next 5 years to improve rivers and groundwater.
  • Through partnership with Ofwat and the Drinking Water Inspectorate we are moving water where it is needed to protect chalk streams and create resilience to climate change.
  • Our work with water companies and industry in the last two decades means there is now 60% less phosphate, 70% less ammonia, 50% less cadmium and mercury, and significantly lower levels of copper and lead in waste water.

However, there are also significant challenges. The publication of our water classification results last week (17 September) showed surface water quality has remained static and is a long way from the government’s ambitions. As population growth, land use and climate change have a significant impact on our water environment, the data shows that despite the existing investment and efforts, we are running to stand still.

We are committed to being transparent with this data. We now know more about the water environment than ever before and are using this evidence to direct the actions we take working with water companies, farmers, and businesses.

The public can also play a role by being mindful of the water they use, as well as not tipping fats, oils and grease down the sink or flushing wet wipes which pollute our waters. You can find out more about tips to save water through the joint industry campaign ‘Water’s Worth Saving’.

What else is the EA doing?

  • Ambitious water quality objectives in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan to improve at least three quarters of our waters, returning them to their natural state.
  • New proposed legally-binding targets focusing on the most significant pressures and pollutants impacting the water environment in the Environment Bill.
  • Reforming our approach to agriculture, including work with industry to reduce pollution, through advice-led programmes and other incentives to curb harmful practices.
  • Setting up a Storm Overflows Taskforce led by Defra, the EA, Ofwat and Water UK to drive the reduction of spills from storm overflows.
  • Developing a new Chemicals Framework, built on a robust statutory REACH chemicals regime, as well as delivering reductions in key industrial pollutants.
  • Reviewing abstraction licences and reducing the amount of water people can take, returning 16 billion litres of water to chalk streams since 2008.
  • The 2015 river basin management plans confirmed £3 billion of investment towards a predicted 8,600km of surface water being enhanced by 2021.The draft updates to the river basin management plans, reflecting on the 2019 classification data, to be published in 2021 will identify where additional action is needed.
  • Billions of pounds of additional investments in water company business plans – since privatisation of the water industry, around £25 billion has been invested to reduce pollution from sewage, covering improvements in sewage treatment and in sewer overflows. This investment has secured significant environmental benefits.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said:

We are passionate about having healthier rivers and lakes, working to the ambition in the 25 Year Environment Plan for three quarters of our waters to be close to their natural state as soon as possible.

Improvements have been made in cutting the amount of chemicals such as phosphate, ammonia, mercury and lead in waste water going into waterways.

We will play our part, but everyone has a role in cleaning up our rivers – we will continue to work with all those who share our ambition.

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  1. Comment by Peter Hunt posted on

    Please, please, please Defra don’t let us down. After decades operating with your other agencies like the EA, as secretive organisations that had no need to communicate with the ordinary citizen, you are now showing a great interest in working in the interests of your tax paying benefactors.
    Don't let us down now after such a good start.
    Let’s hope you will live up to your promises.

  2. Comment by Michael Heylin OBE posted on

    There appears to be a disconnect between this story and the fact that the recent EA report under the Water Framework Directive, published by the Defra Press Department, said that no designated water currently meets even a good standard in England or Wales. The EA management and Covid 19 lock down stopped EA staff going into the field for about five months to see the reality of what has been happening this year and now suddenly you are going to wave your magic wand and everything in the rivers will be rosy. Right!