Defra has proposed changes to how our rivers are managed and regulated which could bring about major benefits.
Healthy rivers need good, sustainable flows of high quality water. Natural processes shaped by these two fundamental factors combine to create a variety of habitats. However, it is no secret that rivers across the UK are suffering from low water levels and poor water quality (e.g. untreated sewage from combined sewer overflows).
In 2016, a WWF report showed that a quarter of rivers in England were at risk from unsustainable abstraction (where water is removed from both rivers and the underground aquifers that feed them, for public consumption):
- 14% of rivers were classified as over-abstracted, where current abstraction is causing river flows to drop below levels needed to sustain the ecosystem; and
- 9% of rivers were over-licensed. This would lead to over-abstraction if licence holders took all the water they were entitled to.
What is a river without enough water? As well as the obvious direct impacts on wildlife, low flows in rivers have a variety of damaging impacts. For example, the less water there is in a river, the less water there is to dilute any pollution that finds its way into our rivers and streams.
A Consultation for Change
The Government has launched a major new consultation on how our rivers are managed, proposing changes to the existing regulations around water abstraction, water resource planning and wastewater management.
These proposals will give regulators (like the Environment Agency) more power to stop unsustainable abstractions and redirect flows back into our thirsty rivers. They will also require water companies to deliver more improvements to the environment by embedding regulatory processes into legislation as a driver for environmental improvement.
Together, these proposals could bring major benefits to our rivers.
Add your voice
It is important that as many people and organisations as possible show their support for these proposals – and we are calling for you to do so now.
We have been working closely with organisations such as the Angling Trust and the Rivers Trust to put together a combined our response. You can read the full document we submitted HERE. Please feel free to use it to help you write your own response. We have pulled out some of the key points below.
The consultation closes on the 12th March. You can respond online HERE, or email your response to firstname.lastname@example.org, with subject line of “Improving our management of water in the environment – consultation response”.
The document covers a range of complex issues, but we have highlighted the questions (given below) that are particularly important and could help deliver significant benefits for the future health of our rivers.
We appreciate that the deadline is looming! If you only have time to address some of the questions, please make them your top priority, and feel free to borrow from our answers in the full document we have provided.
Question 4: Do you agree that the water resources management planning process should be recognised in legislation as a measure to deliver environmental objectives?
The existing Water Resource Management Plans (WRMPs) are a statutory requirement for water companies. WRMPs serve to demonstrate how water companies will balance water supply and demand. These plans place emphasis on the ability of water companies to demonstrate they can meet water supply demand, which currently takes precedent over the health of our rivers and streams, resulting in over-abstraction.
The Defra proposal will embed the WRMP process in legislation as a measure to deliver Government environmental objectives. This will ensure that water companies make a significant and important contribution to the environment and that the needs of rivers and business are given equal importance.
Question 7: Do you agree that Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans (DWMP) should be made statutory and produced every five years?
When the water and sewerage industry was privatised in 1989, a regulatory framework was put in place to ensure that consumers receive high standards of service at a fair price. The aforementioned Water Resource Management Plans are part of this process, giving customers the chance to comment on water company plans to supply enough water.
Many water companies also provide a wastewater service which is not currently scrutinised or regulated in the same detail as drinking water supply. The Trust believes that this is a significant regulatory gap, given the impact the treatment of wastewater can have on the health of our rivers.
The Defra proposal will make the creation of Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans statutory, providing a regulatory process to influence this side of the business and push for what is right for the environment.
We strongly agree with this proposal, and have asked Defra to take it further by giving the same legislative importance to DWMPs as WRMPs (Question 4) enabling them both to deliver significant improvements to the environment.
Question 12: Do you agree that the Environment Agency should be able to vary or revoke any licence that is causing unsustainable abstraction without paying compensation?
As explained above, 14% of waterbodies are over-abstracted, with far-reaching and complex negative impacts on river health. In the South East, home to a good number of globally rare chalk streams, over-abstraction is a serious threat and one we have been working to address.
The Environment Agency regulates abstraction licencing. In some cases, if the EA wishes to alter or revoke an abstraction licence, it has to pay compensation to the licence holder. As a result, many licences remain unaltered and the environment suffers.
The Defra proposal will remove this clause, meaning that the Environment Agency will be able to alter or revoke any unsustainable abstraction licence, allowing the Agency to better protect our rivers. This is to be supported but the Environment Agency must use this power for it to be effective.