Why we must keep the highest standard of water quality in the UK, even if it’s hard to do

in-RIVERThis post is by Dr Stewart Clarke, The National Trust’s national specialist on freshwater, catchments and estuary management.

There has been a sense of unease amongst those of us working for better rivers, lakes and estuaries this week. Sir James Bevan’s (Environment Agency CEO) speech at the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry questioned the implementation, if not the ambition, of the EU Water Framework Directive which has provided a governance framework for managing and protecting our water bodies since 2000. This is nothing new, and there has been plenty of speculation about the future of the directive since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, and since some EU member states have been trying to open up the directive for review.

Good regulation includes tackling difficult issues
Taken as a whole, Sir James’ speech was mostly a defence of good regulation, the need for it to protect people and the environment and the value of it for driving innovation and investment by business. But dig into the detail and there is a worrying undercurrent of wanting to simplify and perhaps pick and choose elements of EU regulation according to their ease of implementation. One can’t help but conclude that this is ‘cherry picking’, with favour given to regulations on which we have been able show progress (for example, the EU Bathing Waters Directive) and seeking reform of those that are just too difficult (for example, the Water Framework Directive).

At the heart of the Environment Agency’s beef with the Water Framework Directive is the ‘one out, all out’ rule whereby a river length, lake, estuary or coastal water gets an overall classification based on the lowest scoring criteria. So, if a river length is now accessible to fish because a fish pass has been installed, but aquatic plants are struggling beneath mats of filamentous algae, that river is only as healthy as those plants. The downside of this is that we can invest lots of effort, deliver improvements but still overall waterbody status stubbornly refuses to change.

There are no shortcuts to improving the environmental health of our waters
It’s easy to understand why this is difficult: the Environment Agency is keen to show progress is being made, not least because it needs to convince politicians that money is being spent to good effect, especially ahead of the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. Also, we need to avoid Environment Agency staff and the many community groups who get involved in caring for our waters becoming disheartened by apparent lack of progress.

However, we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that, no matter how much we spend or how much effort we apply, if we haven’t addressed all of the issues affecting the environmental health of our rivers, lakes and estuaries, then they cannot and should not be deemed healthy. To draw an analogy from everyday life, it would be wrong for a GP to give a patient a clean bill of health on the basis of a healed broken leg if that patient had other symptoms of ill health such as high blood pressure or heart problems.

Furthermore, the argument that ‘one out, all out’ forces us to spend our time on urban rivers which will never be restored to their natural state ignores the huge socioeconomic benefits to be gained by improving such rivers. It is also relevant to note that the directive does not require such wholesale restoration, allowing such waters to be designated as ‘heavily modified’.

We have been thinking about the directive for more than 20 years and, whilst its ambitions are difficult to achieve, successive River Basin Planning rounds and partnership working have shown how we can make progress and navigate some of these trickier implementation issues. The Catchment Based Approach and the National Trust’s recent Riverlands programme are two examples of this.

It’s time to rediscover a more holistic approach to managing our waters
Sir James Bevan’s speech provides a clue as to this way of thinking. For too long, the Water Framework Directive has been seen in England as a ‘water quality’ directive and the speech seems to reinforce this. We need to find ways to return to the true intention of the directive which was a holistic approach to fresh and coastal water health in which we try to manage all of the pressures to the best of our ability to ensure our waters are as functional and healthy as they can be. As I noted in 2016, the directive is not perfect but it’s a good place to start restoring our waters.

Now is the time to think about how we maximise the benefits across the whole of the water environment, extending our tools and knowledge gained through 20 years of Water Framework Directive work to headwaters, small ponds and wetlands. Only by adopting this holistic and catchment based approach can we hope to address the biodiversity and climate crises, and secure healthy waters for people.

[Photo by Annie Harrison from Pexels]

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