Show search form

A view from the riverbank: Environmental Audit Committee publishes water quality report

‘Chemical cocktail’ of sewage, slurry and plastic polluting English rivers puts public health and nature at risk

A report by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC)  into the quality of water in our rivers has been published today, highlighting serious issues with the health of our rivers in England.

Only 14% of English rivers meet good ecological status, with pollution from agriculture, sewage, roads and single-use plastics contributing to a dangerous ‘chemical cocktail’ coursing through our waterways. Not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.

Environmental Audit Committee Chairman, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said:

“Rivers are the arteries of nature and must be protected. Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality. For too long, the Government, regulators and the water industry have allowed a Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure.”

The Clear Access, Clear Waters team at British Canoeing gave oral evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee in May 2021. Much of the evidence given by British Canoeing and Swim England features in Chapter 2 of the report, which sets out the risk to public health, specifically recreational users.

As many paddlers and swimmers are acutely aware, bacteria found in sewage and animal slurry can cause sickness and yet paddlers and swimmers are unable to make informed decisions about when and where it is safe to use rivers downstream of storm overflows and wastewater treatment works. 

The Environmental Audit Committee recommend that as a matter of urgency the Environment Agency work with water companies to ensure that easily accessible information on sewage discharges, in as near to real time as possible, is made publicly available as now required under the Environment Act 2021, along with signage at commonly frequented bathing sites downstream from waste water treatment works.

The report also acknowledges a step change in regulatory action, water company investment, and cross-catchment collaboration with farmers and drainage authorities is urgently required to restore rivers to good ecological health. It calls on Ofwat to require water companies, as a condition of their continued licensing, to deliver year-on-year reductions in the number of pollution incidents, with a target of zero serious incidents by 2030. It also recommends the Environment Agency reclassify significant sewage spills from storm overflows in dry weather as pollution incidents irrespective of permit compliance.

British Canoeing is pleased that the report by the EAC fully recognises the impact that poor water quality can have upon recreational users, and welcomes the recommendation that Ofwat should prioritise the long-term investment in wastewater assets as an essential outcome of its price review process and incentivise nature-based solution. 

The report also welcomes the recent Environment Act, specifically the inclusion of a requirement on water companies to reduce the impact on public health of sewage discharges within the new Environment Act and recommends this includes consideration of antimicrobial resistance.

British Canoeing is also pleased that the report encourages the designation of at least one widely used stretch of river for bathing in each water company area by 2025. This could significantly help drive the step change in water quality that is so urgently required.

The Environment Act, which passed into law in late 2021, should begin to turn the tide and force the worst offenders to begin to pay regard to human health when planning for cleaner waters.

To view the full report, click here.