Call to protect English rivers and lakes as figures show none are in good health

None of England’s rivers or lakes are in good health, according to official data which has prompted calls for urgent action.

Environment Agency figures show that every monitored surface water body in England failed new stricter standards for chemical pollution, meaning none were given an overall clean bill of health.

When figures were last published in 2016, 16% of waters were classed as in good health, but conservationists said the new data reveals the true poor state of rivers, lakes and streams.

Other indicators that make up the overall measure of good health also show little or no improvement, they warn, with only 16% of waters classed as in good ecological status in 2019 – the same as in 2016.

Just one in seven rivers (14%) was classed as in good ecological condition, with healthy populations of fish, insects and aquatic plants that would naturally be found there, a figure that is also unchanged from 2016.

Conservationists said England was on track to miss targets in the EU Water Framework Directive that all water bodies should be in good or better condition by 2027.

The figures come after Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan raised the possibility of reforming the directive.

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But environmental groups warn that measures of how healthy England’s rivers and lakes are should not be watered down after Brexit, by changing the rules that class water bodies as not in good health if they fail any of the indicators.

They have called for the Government to bring in ambitious legal targets to improve the quality of the aquatic environment, legislate for water companies to phase out sewer overflows that pollute rivers, and ensure funding for monitoring.

The groups said water health should be a top priority for regulator Ofwat to ensure reductions in customer bills are not prioritised over getting England’s rivers and lakes in a good condition, to provide sustainable water supplies in the face of climate change.

Farmers also need advice and support, and funding through payments to protect rivers using measures such as buffer strips of land between fields and waterways and reduced use of chemicals, they urged.

Richard Benwell, chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link coalition of conservation groups, said: “Chemicals, sewage, manure and plastic are polluting our rivers, invasive weeds are choking them, and climate change and over-abstraction are drying them out.

“Urgent investment is needed now to turn our suffering waters into thriving blue corridors for wildlife.

“It means investment, industry change, and improved standards are essential, with the legal underpinning in the Environment Bill to make our waters well again.”

Beccy Speight, RSPB chief executive, said: “We think of our rivers, canals, lakes and wetlands as beautiful landscape features, but they are also vital to life, provide homes for our precious wildlife and, in good condition, can help tackle the climate crisis by storing huge amounts of carbon.

“But we are wrecking these incredible natural treasures through pollution and by extracting and draining too much water away.

“It is time for the Government to face up to the fact that international and UK targets meant to protect nature have failed – only legally binding targets and transparent, properly funded monitoring will lead to real change for nature.”