Sometimes you read a statistic and have to read it again to ensure you read it right the first time. Half of our freshwater wildlife species are in decline. That’s right: half of our freshwater wildlife species are in decline. Furthermore, 13% are at risk of extinction. Our rivers and lakes are in real trouble and we need to act urgently.
Hold on, I hear you say, I’m sure I read somewhere that our rivers are cleaner now than any time since the industrial revolution? It’s true that we have made progress in some areas: industrial and sewage pollution have been greatly reduced and many urban rivers are coming back to life.
However, these gains are set against an overall pattern of decline that was brought into sharp relief this week as I came to understand that the number of rivers achieving ‘Good Ecological Status’ in England has dropped from 17% to 14%. As long as we remain signed up to the Water Framework Directive (part of European Union legislation), we are under a legal obligation to get that figure to 75% by 2027. We haven’t a cat in hell’s chance of doing so unless we get our act together and start thinking really differently about the way that we manage water in this country.
This week, I chaired a Blueprint for Water meeting of Chief Executives of water companies, Cathryn Ross, the CEO of Ofwat, officials from the Environment Agency and Natural England and colleagues from the 18 Blueprint member organisations. The meeting launched our new campaign, Blueprint for PR19 (Price Review 2019). If you love healthy water environments, the Price Review process is a really important moment: it is when water companies set out their plans for the next 5 years (from 2019 onwards) and negotiate with Ofwat, the industry regulator, about how much they can charge customers, while also making a contribution to the objectives set by the Government’s environmental agencies.
Given that the companies will spend billions of pounds of our money in that period, which dwarfs the amount spent by government, it’s vital that we ensure those plans help to address the deep-seated failures in our water management system.
The meeting was held under Chatham House rules, so I won’t report what individuals said, but – and here’s the positive bit – there was a surprising and very welcome consensus in the room. The highlights for me were as follows:
- We need to take an innovative approach and scale up the things that have been shown to work at a local or regional level, such as universal metering, sustainable urban drainage systems and working with farmers to reduce pollution of rivers and water supplies.
- The behaviour of people is a really important factor that we need to change. Millions of people put fat from frying pans, sanitary products and nappies down drains and toilets, which cause blockages in the system and sewage overflows. People also waste water and our per capita use puts us to shame compared to other European countries, which have more plentiful supplies.
- The catchment based approach to planning action is vital for the successful management of water and we should work on a long term basis taking into account climate change, population growth and substantial house building programmes, which will put further stress on the system.
It was clear to me that everyone needs to wake up to the real crisis facing our water environment and the supplies on which our economy and lives depend. This isn’t something we can shrug about and get on with our lives any longer. Business as usual is not good enough.
I welcome the water companies’ commitment to addressing the real issues that were clear at the meeting. As citizens and bill payers, we need to press politicians and regulators to make the necessary decisions to support this and to allow them to invest in innovation and catchment management.
We are currently stumbling into another drought in much of the country, the one we had in 2012 that for a while endangered the success of the Olympics long having dropped off the political radar after several floods that cost the country billions. Meanwhile, half of our freshwater species, including many fish, continue to decline towards extinction, and we are all the poorer for that. The Angling Trust, backed by our membership and in partnership with colleagues in Blueprint organisations, will continue to make the case for fundamental reform of water management.
Please help by supporting us, sharing this blog, finding out how to use water and wastewater sensibly, and mentioning water to any politicians who knock on your door in the coming weeks.
Chief Executive, Angling Trust and Fish Legal