Most rivers, lakes and coasts ‘likely to remain in poor state’, watchdog warns

Legal targets to improve the state of England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters will be missed by a “considerable margin” without more action and funding, the environmental watchdog has warned.

The Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) has found the Government and the Environment Agency (EA) are off track to meet targets for 77% of England’s water bodies to reach good condition by 2027.

Laws were not being effectively implemented and unless things changed, most rivers, lakes and coastal waters are “likely to remain in a poor state in the years ahead”, the OEP’s chairwoman Dame Glenys said – a situation which she labelled “deeply concerning”.

Her comments come as the watchdog publishes a report into how laws known as the water framework directive regulations to protect rivers, lakes and water courses are being put into practice.

In a worst-case assessment, just 21% of England’s surface waters would be in a good ecological state, which measures the health of aquatic plants, fish and insects, by 2027, up only marginally from the 16% in good condition today, it said.

The report from the OEP, which comes at a time when there is high public anger over the state of England’s polluted rivers and seas, warns investment is falling short by billions of pounds.

Improvement plans for river networks, known as river basin management plans, are “too generic” and do not focus on specific locations, while gaps in the tools and resources being deployed mean they are not delivering on the goals.

There is slow progress in areas such as delivering the new environmental land management scheme (Elms), which will pay farmers to manage land for public goods such as water quality, the report said.

And it warned there is a lack of governance in delivering the river basin management plans, and gaps in monitoring.

The report calls for the Environment Secretary and EA to take urgent action to bring in additional, specific, and time-bound measures, with sufficient and confirmed funding to achieve the improvement in water bodies.

Pollution is the biggest issue damaging the state of England’s waters, from agriculture and wastewater treatment discharges, while runoff from urban areas and roads, invasive species, and structures such as weirs are also a problem.

While much of the focus has been on sewage overflows, it is comparatively small, though still important part of the problem, the report said.

While levels of some individual pollutants have been reduced over the years, there has been little positive change in the state of rivers, lakes and coastal waters in recent years, and even some regression, the report warns.

It highlights that the EA has calculated a cost of £51 billion to achieve the targets, which will deliver £64 billion in benefits, but there is only confirmed funding of £6.2 billion up to 2027 – just 12% of that required.

Rural land management needs more than two thirds of the total required, followed by the water industry, the report highlights.

The OEP also warns that the Government and EA may not have complied with the regulations in a number of areas, including setting objectives to improve water bodies with “low confidence” the targets could be met, and justifications for when rivers, lakes or coasts could be exempt from achieving them.

Dame Glenys said: “We have found that, while the relevant law here is broadly sound, it is simply not being implemented effectively.

“This means it is not delivering as intended and, as a consequence, most of our open water is likely to remain in a poor state in the years ahead unless things change. This is deeply concerning.

“While we know that there are dedicated and professional people working hard to improve the condition of our rivers, as in so many other aspects of the environment, government must now ensure substantial funding for a wider range of specific action, at pace and with ambition.

“Without such measures, we assess that the commitment by Government and the Environment Agency to bring 77% of surface water bodies to a good ecological condition by 2027 will be missed by a considerable margin.”

And she urged: “Government must speed up and scale up its efforts to protect and improve our waters.”

A Government spokesperson said: “We are confident that the river basin management plans are compliant with the current regulations and we have already committed to reforming these plans and delivering tailored long-term proposals to improve all water bodies in England.

“This is alongside our work to fast-track investment and hold water companies more accountable – including consulting on a ban on bonuses and bringing in a four-fold increase in inspections.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “In rivers, lakes and groundwaters up and down the country, our teams are working hard to deliver improvements to our water.

“Since 2000, the EA has directed more than £14 billion of investment from the water industry alone into improvements to our water environment.

“The OEP’s report has highlighted that there is much further to go, which we welcome, and we are committed to working with Government as well as with all partners to help achieve our shared goal of clean and plentiful water.”

But Charles Watson, founder and chairman of campaign group River Action, said the assessment made “grim reading for our rivers” and was a “damning vote of no confidence” in Defra and the EA’s ability to deliver on their statutory objectives.

“With almost all our rivers failing ecologically, it is shocking to read the OEP’s conclusion that current Government plans are clearly woefully inadequate to address this environmental crisis.

“We fully echo the OEP’s demands that the Secretary of State pulls put his finger out and takes urgent action to develop additional, specific, time bound and fully funded measures to address the dire condition of our rivers,” he said.

Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Rivers Trust, said: “In the Water Framework Directive, we have a strong piece of legislation and a good framework for improving our waterways that has suffered from years of dither, delay, and poor implementation.

“As the OEP point out, unless we see an immediate and significant increase in funding and action, pace and ambition, we will miss the key target of all rivers being in good ecological health by 2027.”