Water quality monitoring in England has halved over the last two decades

Karthik Muthuswamy
5 min readMay 26, 2022
Birmingham canal

The monitoring of water quality in England has halved over the last two decades, according to an analysis by Karthik Muthuswamy on data from the Environment Agency (EA).

The latest data from the EA also shows that all surface water bodies in England have failed to achieve good chemical status and only 16% of the English surface waters — including rivers, lakes and canals — are on good ecological standards, down from 22% in 2009.

Salmon and Trout Conservation, an independent charity, has criticised the environmental agency — the key regulatory body in charge of protecting water bodies from pollution — for failing its job as a regulator.

Another environmental charity, Surfers Against Sewage noted that the government is not on track to achieving the environmental objectives — as part of the Water Framework Directive — of good ecological and chemical status by 2027 for all English rivers.

Water pollution is caused by the dumping of sewage by water companies and chemicals by agricultural and industrial activities. The contaminated runoff water from agriculture alone is responsible for 40% of pollution caused in the waterways, according to the EA.

Paul de Zylva, a senior sustainability analyst at Friends of the Earth, said:

“Over the last few years, our waterways have suffered catastrophically. Water companies have got off scot-free for pumping raw sewage into British rivers and oceans in quantities that cannot be justified.

“While a taskforce has been set up to remedy the problem, little progress has been made so far. Ministers must get tougher on enforcement and better equip the Environment Agency to monitor water quality. Our inland and coastal waters will only become more toxic and lifeless if they fail to do so.”

Inadequate monitoring and inspection

A report published this year by Environmental Audit Committee noted that “outdated, underfunded, and inadequate monitoring regimes are getting in the way of getting a complete overview of the health of our rivers.”

The EA has been reducing the monitoring of water bodies in recent years. A report published by Unearthed (Greenpeace UK) with data obtained through FOI, showed that the number of sites where the samples were taken has reduced by more than half since 2013.

The number of samples taken has halved over the past two decades.

The operator self-monitoring system introduced by EA made itself reliant on the water companies to report their own breaches. However, Salmon and Trout Conservation criticised the EA in its report on reduced monitoring of the environment and polluting discharges. It added that the EA does not provide a “coherent and comprehensive overview of water status within each river basin district” as required by the Water Framework Directive.

The number of inspections carried out has also hit record low levels since the self-monitoring system was introduced amid the increase in the number of water pollution incidents caused by agriculture.

Low-impact pollution incidents ignored; serious incidents not prosecuted

An internal report leaked to the Guardian revealed that EA has advised its staff to ignore category 3 and 4 incidents (low- and no- impact) due to the lack of funding. However, it is unclear how an incident can be classified as low before it is inspected. A report from Ends shows that hundreds of incidents that were reported as low-impact are actually in the serious impact category.

EA said on the government blog:

“We focus our incident response effort on those pollution incidents which pose the greatest risk to the environment.

“Our Incident Triage Project is looking at how we can best use our resources and maximise benefits for the environment. While we continue to attend to the most serious incidents we concentrate our efforts on our regulatory activities which prevent incidents from happening in the first place. Intelligence from incident reporting helps us to plan and prioritise our work to protect the environment ”

Another leaked report showed that during the four years until December 2020, EA’s investigating officers had found 109 cases of serious pollution incidents in the water bodies. However, only 19% of those were pursued to prosecution. The rest of the cases were downgraded — the polluters received a warning letter or faced no action.

In response to the leaked report, the EA said, it uses a wide range of options such as civil sanctions and providing advice and guidance to enforce policies.

Budget cuts

The overall budget for the EA has reduced significantly over the recent years. The case is the same with the number of staff as seen on the EA annual reports. In addition, EA has been sequentially subjugated “by the central government to the business and economic agenda” according to Nick Measham, the Chief executive of Salmon & Trout Conservation.

Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, said:

“Good regulation also needs to be funded properly. The core environmental principle is that the polluter pays.

“…And where it isn’t possible or fair for individual polluters to pay some of the critical costs of regulation, like monitoring the environment or enforcing the rules, the government should. (…) Neither of those sources fully fund what we think we actually need to do to protect and enhance the environment.

“Ultimately we will get the environment we are prepared to pay for.”

The inquiry launched by the Environmental Audit Committee to investigate the water quality in English rivers found that the “English river quality is the worst in Europe.” Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said:

“Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality.

“…To deliver real change and improve the state of our rivers, a wide range of stakeholders must come together including the Government, regulators and water companies. The Environment Act signalled the first welcome sign of the political will to tackle this issue. I hope this marks the start of Government regulatory and polluter action to improve the state of our rivers for all to enjoy.”

Method and data

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