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EU water quality divergence – Defra counters UK media claims

Tuesday, 21 November 2023

The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has hit out at recent media coverage claiming it is on the verge of deviating from European Union (EU) standards and adopting undisclosed methodologies for assessing river health. 

Is the UK set to diverge from EU standards for water monitoring?

In a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, revelations indicated that the UK government is set to diverge from the EU standards for monitoring water quality in England with concerns growing among campaigners. They feared that the proposed changes could potentially lead to increased pollution in the country's rivers and waterways if new measuring methods prove to be less rigorous.

While under the EU's jurisdiction, England adhered to the Water Framework Directive (WFD), which involved an annual national chemical and ecological survey of rivers. However, after Brexit, the WFD was transposed into English law, and since 2016, the government opted to test water quality under WFD every three years instead of annually.

This development aligns with a broader pattern of the UK diverging from EU environmental standards, as highlighted by recent analyses revealing that various toxic chemicals and pesticides banned in the EU since Brexit remain legal for use in the UK. Additionally, efforts to revise EU-derived sewage pollution rules for housebuilders have been underway.

Only 14 per cent of rivers in good health

In 2019, the last comprehensive water assessments took place, revealing that only 14 per cent of rivers were in good ecological health and none met the standards for good chemical health. The government has now stated that a complete update will not be delivered until 2025, the latest permissible date under the new WFD.

Defra says that contrary to the assertions made, it is important to note that no decision has been reached regarding a departure from EU standards on water quality monitoring.

Its significance is the fact that neither the WFD nor UK WFD regulations mandate an annual survey (national classification) of water bodies. The Environment Agency is legally bound to incorporate data for every water body in England in the river basin management plans, subject to regular review, updating, and publication every six years.

The most recent comprehensive dataset was disclosed in 2019, preceding the 2021 river basin management plans, with the next full dataset scheduled for release in 2025.


Long-term river surveillance networks 

Addressing concerns about potential alterations, the Environment Agency says it has introduced a new long-term 'river surveillance network' monitoring programme for rivers to offer a national overview of the state of England's rivers. It says the programme does not replace the WFD monitoring, which remains an integral part of the process. 

It’s been estimated that achieving 100 per cent monitoring of the 4,630 overflows in England could see £1.1 billion invested by water companies.

In alignment with the objectives set forth in the Plan for Water, Defra says the government is dedicated to establishing a clear and robust framework for the comprehensive management of the water system. As part of this commitment, a review of the implementation of the Water Environment Regulations 2017 is underway, with the overarching goal of restoring 75 per cent of water bodies to good ecological status. 


Important consultation 

In December last year Defra revealed statistics that showed over 97 per cent of bathing waters in England passed water quality standards.

“We want to make sure a clear and robust framework underpins our whole management of the water system. Any changes would be fully consulted on in the usual way,” said a Defra spokesman. 

An Environment Agency spokesperson continued: “No significant changes to the classification methodology are planned – including changes to one-out all-out. Every single water body will receive a classification.”

As the narrative unfolds, the complexities of balancing environmental protection, regulatory frameworks and public transparency become increasingly apparent.

The evolving landscape of water quality monitoring in the UK necessitates continued vigilance, open dialogue and a collaborative effort to safeguard the nation's waterways for the benefit of both the environment and its inhabitants.