Greater effort needed to restore our valuable coastal habitats

The RSPB has been reviewing the state of the UK’s coastal habitats through their Sustainable Shores project. Nathan Richardson from the RSPB describes the headline findings and recommendations from this major project below.

The UK’s shores are vital for people and wildlife.

The UK’s estuaries and coasts are incredibly valuable as a place to live, work, relax and play and for the wealth of wildlife they support. They help protect us from flooding; they lock away carbon; they support our fisheries and they attract millions of visitors. The value of the services provided by our coastal habitats is estimated at £48 billion.[2]

However, the coastal zone is in trouble. It is shrinking, and what habitat that remains is generally in a woeful condition. A 2013 assessment of the UK’s internationally important coastal habitats found that none of them have a favourable conservation status.[3]

Stronger nature legislation, in particular the EU Nature Directives, has helped stem the tide of losses due to development. However, our coastal habitats remain very vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise. As sea levels rise in response to global warming, intertidal habitats like mudflat sand saltmarshes can get squeezed against fixed flood defences (“coastal squeeze”). The latest predictions see us continuing to lose at least 60 hectares (ha) of intertidal habitat.

What can we do?

Fortunately, the solutions are in our hands. Through more than 70 projects in the last 25 years[4] we have developed experience of creating coastal habitat. More than 2,500ha of habitat, such as intertidal saltmarshes and mudflats, has been created through techniques such as managed realignment.

The RSPB, working with a range of partners including the Environment Agency, has been at the heart of this effort, helping to deliver and manage more than 33% of the coastal habitat created in the UK (some 880ha). As our experience has increased, our projects have become larger, with schemes such as Medmerry and the Wallasea Island Wild Coast Project providing landscape-scale benefits for wildlife and people.

As part of our Sustainable Shores project, we know that there are more than enough places around the coast where we can replace what has been lost and will be lost in the future. We know what we need to do, where to do it, why and how. But we still haven’t got close to replacing even 25% of the UK area of coastal habitat that has been lost since 1945, and we are struggling to keep up with what continues to be lost each year.

Completed coastal habitat creation schemes and opportunities for future coastal habitat creation.
(L) Completed coastal habitat creation schemes. (R) Opportunities for future coastal habitat creation.

Crucially, the UK is also failing to implement its Shoreline Management Plan policies and to adapt our coast to climate change. This failure was highlighted in the Government’s UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2017, in which flooding and coastal change risks to infrastructure, communities and businesses was identified as a top risk for the UK.

What RSPB are calling for

The RSPB will continue to work with partners to deliver schemes and manage sites that work for people and wildlife. Crucially, we believe there also needs to be:

  • Protection of the Nature Directives post-Brexit. They have been vital in slowing the rate of loss due to coastal development and ensuring governments address the loss of protected coastal habitat to coastal squeeze.
  • Clear milestones, responsibilities and funding for climate change adaptation on the coast through proper implementation of Shoreline Management Plan policies and National Adaptation Programmes.
  • New National Habitat Creation Programmes in Scotland and Northern Ireland to address the impacts of coastal change, including the loss of protected habitat.
  • More government and regulator action on improving coastal habitat quality, including through encouraging measures such as the beneficial use of dredged material.
  • Further exploration by multi-sector partnerships of innovative ways that coastal adaptation can be delivered and financed.

For further information on the RSPB Sustainable Shores project visit https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/projects/sustainable-shores/ or contact Nathan Richardson at nathan.richardson@rspb.org.uk

 

[1] Office for National Statistics (2016) Scoping UK coastal margin ecosystem accounts.
[2] UK National Ecosystem Assessment (2011) The UK National Ecosystem Assessment Technical Report.
[3] UK General Implementation Report. Annex A of the 2013 UK Article 17 EU Habitats Directive Report
[4] ABPmer (2017). UK Marine Habitat Creation Schemes – A summary of completed managed realignment and regulated tidal exchange projects (1991–2016). White Paper. Ref. 2781.

Solving the surface water problem naturally

There are around four million properties at risk from surface water flooding. In 2015/16, more than 37,000 areas were externally flooded by sewage; and over 4,000 properties were internally flooded by sewage.[1] Plus, when too much rain enters the sewers they are allowed to spill untreated sewage into our rivers and sea. This happens thousands of times a year. Yet management of our surface water does not get prioritised or funded by Government to anywhere near the same degree as flooding from rivers. Even though the same Government document highlighting that nearly four million properties are at risk of surface water flooding also quoted 2.4 million properties are at risk of flooding from the rivers and sea, with one million at risk from both.

By using a naturalised approach to drainage, sustainable systems help reduce the amount of water entering our sewers. They can also improve the quality of water entering our sewers and create beautiful green spaces attractive to people and wildlife. Yet progress on integrating Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) into our urban environment is slow, through both new development and retrofitting.

WWT and CIWEM carried out a recent survey, which brought to light a number of reasons for this. For new development, we found that some problems can be addressed by better information and a change in culture, but ultimately better Government policy is required in this area to combat uncertainty and inconsistency. This is also the case with retrofit. SuDS provide many social benefits through reducing flood risk and providing green spaces, however, the financial incentives for a landowner to invest is less obvious. In addition, because of huge resource capacity issues in local authorities, they are unlikely to prioritise investment without a national driver.

So where do we go from here? Well there are a few nuggets to surface water management in the 25 year Environment Plan. In line with our recommendations, the Government aims to put in place more sustainable drainage, particularly in new development through considering changes to the planning framework and guidance. It also plans to improve existing arrangements for managing surface water flooding, through promising to create green and blue spaces and improving people’s ability to connect to nature and improve health and well-being.

However, for the 25 Year Plan to succeed, it is vital that is has buy in from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Developing metrics and details on next steps for implementation for the Plan will be key. The rhetoric to provide high quality housing is a small whisper alongside the need for numbers. This should not be acceptable. Good quality housing which is resilient to our changing climate can and should be provided without question. Between 2012 and 2015, the nine biggest housing developers increased their housing output by 33%. At the same time, revenue grew at more than twice this rate, increasing to 76%, with profit before tax rising by a staggering 200% in this period.[2]

The Government is currently drafting a surface water management action plan. To help deliver the aims in the 25 year Environment Plan, we recommend it includes the following:

  • National SuDS standards to include standards for delivering multiple benefits as the Welsh standards
  • A review of Government funding to reduce flood risk, identifying options to better allocate funding for surface water flood management projects.
  • Government has proposed to increase planning fees in order for planning authorities to have more resources. This should not just be used as suggested to increase the number of development applications being processed but should be used to increase expertise in sustainable drainage and ecology, to ensure planning conditions are met and to facilitate pre-application discussions.
  • Opportunity mapping should be undertaken between Lead Local Flood Authorities and Local Authorities which maps potential development against a variety of variables including water quality issues, environmentally sensitive areas and flood risk. This will help identify where SuDS would make the most impact in both new and existing development and therefore best value for money.
  • New build is only a small percentage of housing stock and the Government time and again fail to discuss retrofit. The action plan needs to acknowledge the role of retrofit SuDS and finally provide a driver to empower local authorities to invest in SuDS as flood risk mitigation. We propose Government promote strategic roll out of SuDS retrofit options and considers options for developing funding opportunities such as green bonds or facilitating collaborative funding.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust and Chair, Blueprint for Water

[1] Discover Water (accessed 13th July 2017) http://www.discoverwater.co.uk/sewer-flooding

[2] http://www4.shu.ac.uk/mediacentre/research-reveals-scale-housing-developers-profits

Christmas reflections, passions and hope for 2018

What a year, so much has been going on, momentum is pulling us, let us embrace change. Change happens because of aspirational thinkers and doers, it doesn’t happen by going, ‘oh well, it would be good to make a few tweaks’. It finally looks like government is moving in the right direction for nature. We have a Secretary of State for the Environment who wants to see change and seems to be eager for action. But we need to see words become a reality rather than a promise or a piece of paper.

Can Michael Gove give Defra the confidence and status in Government it needs to deliver on its aspirations or will the claim to leave the environment in a better condition than when we inherited it yet again be hot air? There’s an important role for us NGOs to play in this. We need to support Defra and Michael Gove as small cogs in the big Government machine and help them turn such promises into action.

To deliver on proposed actions Defra need wider Government support, funding and opportunities for partnership working. We have seen great collaboration in 2017 between NGOs, water companies and Government, demonstrating we can work together to make things better. I applaud this collaborative effort – let’s keep it up through 2018. Yet there is a delicate balancing act to play between being supportive and pushing for more – if we don’t push enough we might not get ambitious offers, if we push too much we could end up with nothing. This is especially difficult when officials argue that we tick the box already because the environment is in a better state than it was 120 years ago. Badgers do not move goal posts, people do.

But there is also more to be done. The health of our environment is declining and there is no need for this to be the case. Government and industry need to take the opportunity of Brexit to fundamentally change the rhetoric of economic prosperity OR protecting and enhancing the environment. Both can and should be achieved through intelligent decision making.

In 2018, I would like to see the Government deliver in two particular areas that will help to protect the environment and enhance it:

  • To enshrine their commitment in an Environment Act (including an independent body to hold Government to account).
  • To put its money where its mouth is to deliver measures for public goods (such as funding and delivery of an agricultural policy which works for farmers and wildlife) and to support partnership delivery.

And finally, a plea to everyone out there at Christmas time that this is not just down to Government but down to every single one of us. We can make a difference, people can move mountains! It is people power that got Governments to commit to reducing greenhouse gases, to protect whales, our oceans and more recently to take action on plastic. Keep an eye out in 2018 as opportunities develop for you to tell Government that you want them to protect and enhance the environment.

We can all make a difference. If everybody reading this makes a commitment to give up something superfluous this New Year, the impact could be huge. I’ll start by promising to make my own toothpaste, but there are simple changes like refusing to drink out of a disposable cup, turning the heating down a degree, taking a shorter shower, or eating vegetarian once a week.

The world is in our hands so let’s look after it, let’s show the world in 2018 that the UK is leading the way and aim for the blue sky.

Merry Christmas everyone.

Hannah Freeman

Chair, Blueprint for Water
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

PR19 – what’s in it for the environment?

Guest blog from David Black at Ofwat – the water sector regulator. 

Improved environmental health has been one of the great successes of the water sector in the past few decades. Since 1989, the work of water companies has led to a 137% increase in the share of UK bathing waters achieving “excellent” status, and wildlife such as otters and lamprey have returned to waters previously too polluted for anything to live in. In addition, since its high in 1994, the amount of water lost through leakage has been reduced by around a third. All of this has helped the UK shed its label as the ‘Dirty Man of Europe’.

Fast forward to the present, and environmental protection and resilience remain high on the public agenda, with decarbonisation, air quality, and pollution of our oceans all grabbing headlines in recent months. The water sector is not immune to environmental challenges, with issues caused by population growth and climate change requiring attention. It’s with these challenges in mind that we put together our 2019 price review (PR19).

Challenging companies

At PR19 our ambition for the environment is high. We will help ensure companies can deliver their statutory obligations and the environmental improvements that customers want and are willing to pay for. To make this happen, we are:

  • challenging companies to reduce leakage by 15% per annum;
  • asking companies to set ambitious targets for per capita consumption (PCC) reductions;
  • challenging companies to set stretching performance commitments on pollution incidents, sewer collapses and wastewater treatment. Companies will face financial penalties if they are not achieving stretching levels of performance;
  • requiring companies to have a performance commitment on reducing abstraction from environmentally sensitive sites;
  • ensuring companies consider the environment as an explicit part of their wider resilience.

Our PCC measure is particularly important, as it requires reductions in the amount of water households and businesses consume. To deliver this, water companies must engage with their customers on the best way to reduce their water use, putting communications at the heart of their operation and promoting a powerful tool in pursuit of environmental improvement – behaviour change.

But PR19 also puts a responsibility on companies to consider the environment in contexts that customers won’t see. A resilient environment is at the heart of a resilient water sector, and our resilience principles explicitly consider eco-system resilience. When planning for how they will deal with unexpected events, water companies will need to consider wider costs and benefits to society and the environment, including the sustainable use of natural capital.

Looking to the long term

The water sector needs to think long term, which is why we are asking water companies to provide assurance that their plans address long-term issues, and set indicative performance commitment levels for at least the next 15 years. This approach helps us to ensure that companies are on a genuinely sustainable path, rather than just responding to short-term incentives or issues. A number of emerging environmental issues – including nano-particles and antibiotics – are set to challenge the sector in the coming years, so it is right that companies expand their planning horizons.

PR19 also harnesses the power of markets in the interests of the environment. In January water companies will publish water resource market information, allowing third parties easy access to information about how they are planning to meet demand over the next 25 years. We are expecting and encouraging third parties to bid to provide services where they spot an opportunity for additional efficiencies. For example, a third party could offer innovative demand side solutions to enable a company to reduce abstraction of water from environmentally sensitive rivers and streams. We are also promoting the development of bioresource markets helping turn sludge waste into valuable energy and fertiliser.

When developing their business plans, we expect companies to actively engage customers and stakeholders to understand their requirements for environmental outcomes and investment. Our methodology indicates where we consider companies’ ambition should be on many issues. But beyond statutory and licence obligations, it is for customers to decide what level of environmental ambition they want and are willing to pay for. Our PR19 framework will ensure that companies will be held to account for delivering more of what matters to customers.

David Black
Senior Director, Water 2020, Ofwat

Read the full PR19 methodology. 

Welcome New Farming Rules for Water

Earlier this month the Government published a set of farming rules for water, establishing a mandatory baseline of good practice that land managers across England must follow. These focus on planning farm operations to reduce the risk of water pollution, conserve soils and promote the most efficient use of nutrients. The rules make sense and are a welcome step that has been some time coming.

Tackling nutrient pollution and soil loss is one of the biggest challenges we face in improving the state of the environment in the UK. Across England and Wales, 2.9 million tonnes of soil are lost from fields every year. Nutrient pollution kills fish and other aquatic animals and can drive a change from plant communities dominated by flowering plants to ones dominated by algae. Ultimately this can lead to toxic algal blooms and pose a risk to the health of humans and animals that come into contact with polluted water. Other sectors, especially waste water treatment, contribute to the problem but across the UK agriculture is responsible for 50% of total nitrogen losses, 25% of phosphorus and 75% of sediment. For predominantly rural catchments, these proportions are much greater.

There is no doubt that there is an urgent need for action, but if the new rules are to play their part in reducing pollution from farming, we need clarity on three things:

  1. what guidance will be available? Farmers must have confidence that their practice is complying and know where they can go for advice
  2. how will these rules help? People need to know what contribution these rules are expected to make to the recovery of waters and, where compliance with these will not be enough, what other combination of regulation and incentive will be applied
  3. how will compliance be ensured? The Environment Agency does not have the resources to monitor and enforce these rules at present

The majority of farmers will already be meeting the requirements set out in the new rules and will not need to make any changes to their operation, as the rules do not raise the bar above what is already required by Cross Compliance under the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

They aim to set a fair baseline of practice for everyone so that nobody can seek to gain an advantage by taking risks and imposing some or all of the cost of that risk on others. These rules are also helpful in setting out the expectations of minimum performance for the sector; an essential prerequisite to thinking about what a future system of payments for public goods might look like post-Brexit.

It is not clear how the Environment Agency intends to ensure compliance. This will require clear guidance from Government to ensure that farmers are provided with support and guidance, especially in relation to those rules that expect farmers to take ‘reasonable precautions’ without setting out explicitly what they are. Support for initiatives such as Catchment Sensitive Farming and the Catchment Based Approach will also be essential in providing trusted advice and support.

It is critical that the rules are properly enforced but far from clear that the Environment Agency has the resources to do it. The risk of soil erosion is greatest in the autumn and winter, when soils are most likely to be exposed and rainfall is highest, so inspections designed to identify problems must target that period. Many respondents to the previous consultation raised understandable concerns about privacy if monitoring was done remotely without landowner consent, but there must be a role for technology in identifying problem areas and targeting effort. Detail about how the Environment Agency will achieve adequate compliance monitoring is urgently needed.

These rules will not be enough on their own to drive the recovery of our water environment. The accompanying policy paper states that they ‘fulfil obligations under the Water Framework Directive (WFD)’ but this is a bit misleading. The WFD requires Member States to have controls in place to limit diffuse pollution and there were no such controls in place in England outside Nitrate Vulnerable Zones. However, the overriding obligation arising from the WFD is to enable water bodies to achieve good ecological status and we will still be a long way from achieving that. For example, to meet the targets of the last round of River Basin Management Plans, it was calculated that phosphorus losses due to agriculture needed to be reduced by 28-43%. By contrast, when these new rules were consulted on in 2015, they suggested only a 2.4% reduction in phosphorus. While the published rules might be better than those consulted on, there is still a significant gap. Setting out a road map for closing that gap will be a key challenge for the Government’s 25 Year Plan for the Environment.

The new rules are a welcome first step but there is much still to do if we are to see the recovery we need in our rivers and wetlands.

Simon Wightman
Water Policy Officer, RSPB

Making a Great 25 Year Plan for the Environment

The Government is in full swing drafting a 25 Year Plan for the environment (again). If done properly, with legally binding targets and milestones, we have the potential for the most ambitious but deliverable opportunity for the environment we’ve had in many years. Environmental NGOs have been working together to try and ensure the plan fully delivers for nature.

From a water, aquatic, fish splashing, frogs croaking, otters swimming perspective we are seeking commitment to improving protection and management of the aquatic environment.

This includes:

Ambition – we welcome that salmon are once again swimming up rivers where they have been absent for years, but there is still a long way to go. Less than 20% of our rivers, lakes and groundwaters are at good ecological status. River basin management plans take us some way to improving the quality of our water bodies but we must not rely on them as the sole answer to water quality. The timeline for those plans goes up to 2027 and this is a 25 Year Plan. Let’s build on the plans, and set ambitious targets for water quality into the future. Let’s face the issue of diffuse pollution. Simple changes to planning and land management could have significant benefits and reduce the costs to society of water treatment, flooding and loss of biodiversity.

Monitoring – we are concerned about the potential severity of cuts to environmental monitoring and hence the ability to identify problems, implement solutions and ensure that the polluter pays. Long-term monitoring is important to understanding change. Government bodies  need data to make informed decisions, and this data collection requires resources and expertise. Environmental monitoring underpins good investment and apportionment of costs. There should also be a framework to enable the agencies to utilise third party data much more easily.

Integration and multiple benefits – funding often considers individual projects for too much water, too little water and water quality. Yet how we manage water using natural processes can do much more holistically. Re-meandering not only slows water down which reduces flooding, it can also locally increase low flows up to 15% [1]. Similarly, sustainable drainage systems can reduce surface water run-off and improve water quality and biodiversity as well as provide societal benefits; wetlands can be created which remove chemicals and sediment from water before it reaches a water course whilst also providing biodiversity benefit and slowing water down.

Let’s start thinking about managing water, rather than managing floods or drought or chemicals. Funding needs to incentivise delivery of multiple benefits from the inception of a project. It just doesn’t work if bolted on as an afterthought to tick a box. Strong regulation, incentives, new markets and new ways of working are all required. 

Natural Capital Accounting – we welcome a natural capital approach but alongside the following stipulations. There is a need to protect the environment because it is the right thing to do. Biodiversity loss is one of our biggest problems and one of the hardest things to monetise, but arguably the most important area to stop loss, protect and enhance. Assigning a monetary value is not always possible and sometimes we should protect the environment even if the pound signs do not add up. We also have to be careful that in putting monetary values on environmental services we do not bias investment towards easy wins, such as flood mitigation and carbon storage. The 25 Year Plan should include a set of biodiversity indicators and targets, separate from natural capital objectives.

Catchment based approach – we need to take a catchment based approach for integrated water management, from source to sea. Adequate monitoring is crucial to identify issues in catchments and understand where the most beneficial interventions will be. Opportunity mapping could help identify not only the issues in a catchment, but also how measures might act upon each other and who might benefit.

The plan needs to apply across Government. Without commitment from other departments such as Treasury and the Department for Communities and Local Government, DEFRA cannot achieve the Government’s ambition to leave the environment in a better state than it found it, even with the most ambitious plan.

The Government have promised that the 25 Year Plan will be a living document, but let’s make it as good as it can be from the start. We’ve been sharing our thoughts with Government and now there’s the opportunity for you too. Every day in Parliament, nature’s needs are drowned out by other louder voices. Now, with the future of our environment laws at stake, it’s #TimeToBeHeard. Please take the time to email your MP.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust

[1] http://ec.europa.eu/environment/water/blueprint/pdf/EUR25551EN_JRC_Blueprint_NWRM.pdf

Microplastics research finds more than half of those released remain on land

Although plastics in the marine environment have received worldwide attention, it is estimated that more than half of microplastics released remain on land. This happens when wastewater sewage sludge is applied to soil, and when particulates are washed from road surfaces. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to the microplastic problem; once released into the environment there are few, if any, practicable means by which these pollutants can be removed. As many microplastics are produced from the degradation of larger items, we should be looking further upstream for both pollution and its prevention.

Whilst the damage to the marine environment should not be overlooked, we must equally focus our attention to impacts that microplastics could have on freshwater and terrestrial environments. They have the potential to accumulate in these environments, impacting upon nature and the human food chain, as well as providing a platform for pathogens.

Microplastics can be any particles smaller than 5mm, including microscopic particles. They form from the weathering and breakdown of larger plastics, or are released intentionally or unintentionally in the form of manufactured beads, granules and fibres. Most microplastics have been found to arise from the washing of synthetic textiles and from the breakdown of plastic road markings and tyres from driving. Once released into the environment, they can then be transported via the wind, through surface waters and sewers, and by rivers.

At CIWEM, our new report has reviewed the latest evidence on microplastic removal processes at water and wastewater treatment plants. We found that wastewater treatment processes could reduce microplastics from 97-99%. Whilst this sounds promising, the large volumes of wastewater processed each day means that millions of microplastics are still being released back into the freshwater environment.

The high proportion of particles that are removed at wastewater treatment works become trapped in sewage sludge. These can then be transferred back into the environment when sewage sludge is spread on land to provide the nutrients needed for agriculture. EU legislation requires sludge to be treated to protect against health hazards, for example by lime stabilisation, anaerobic digestion, composting or thermal drying, but there is limited evidence of these being able to remove microplastics and no current specific regulation.

Data on the environmental and health impacts of microplastics on land are sparse. Our report calls for much greater research into the impacts associated with the application of sewage sludge containing microplastics to farmland.

The Government has recently published draft legislation that will ban the sale of products that include microbeads in ‘wash off’ personal care products by January, and ban their manufacture by June 2018. Whilst this is a welcome ‘upstream’ intervention, these are a minor contributor to the overall problem – it is estimated that these make up just 0.01 to 4.1% of plastics in the marine environment.

Every-day disposable items, such as plastic bottles and coffee cups, are particularly problematic. Only around half of the 35 million plastic bottles sold in Britain every day are currently collected for recycling. Moreover, around 7 million cardboard coffee cups are thrown away each day, many with a single use plastic lid. Only 1 in 400 cups are recycled, leaving over 6.98 million for landfill, or ending up in the environment.

To tackle this growing mountain of waste, our report calls for the Government to implement a new plastics strategy to improve product design and substitution, extend producer responsibility and support plastic bottle deposit return schemes.

Laura Grant, Senior Policy Adviser
CIWEM (the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management)

CIWEM’s report ‘Addicted to Plastic’ and a policy position statement ‘Microplastic pollution’ can be found at www.ciwem.org/waste-resources.

#binit4beaches to keep our bathing waters clean

This summer, organisations across the UK – charities including Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and Keep Britain Tidy, water companies, the Environment Agency, Local Authorities and beach managers – have all come come together as part of the #binit4beaches campaign, to highlight the importance of only flushing the 3P’s –  pee, poo and paper –  and always putting wet wipes in the bin.

With sandy coves, sweeping bays and towering clifftops, the UK coastline is as beautiful and unique as anywhere in the world – and with nowhere more than 70 miles from the coast, it should come as no surprise that over 14 million trips are made to our beaches each year (VisitBritain, 2015).

Spending time at the coast is good for our health and wellbeing. In the UK over 600 beaches have been recognised for the importance they play in outdoor recreation and are designated as bathing waters. Each summer, the water at these beaches is sampled and tests are done, sometimes weekly, to look for signs of pollution from sewage, run-off from farmland or even for too much poo from dogs, birds or donkeys.

Any beach which fails these tests, taken over a period of four years, must display a sign at the beach entrance advising visitors not to swim. Investigations will be done to find out where the pollution is coming from and an action plan put in place to stop it reaching the beach in the future. At beaches where pollution can be temporarily increased – due to heavy rainfall – daily forecasts are provided by the Environment Agency, and the local authority or beach owner updates signs at the beach each day. All of this work is done to ensure that people heading to the beach can enjoy a dip in the sea.

Visitors are often unaware that all this work is happening in the background to look after our beaches – but it doesn’t mean that we can’t all do our part to help make sure that they stay clean. Something as simple as remembering what you can, and can’t, flush down your toilet can really make a difference.

Wet wipes are considered essential to many people; helping clean up anything from dirty nappies to grubby faces. But, if they get flushed down the toilet they can block drains and pipes, increasing the chance of sewers overflowing during heavy rainfall and flooding.

This means that some of those wipes that were flushed down the toilet can end up in our rivers and seas and on our beaches – the MCS annual beach litter survey shows that the number of wet wipes found on UK beaches has increased by almost 700% over the last decade.

“But my wet wipe says flushable on it?”

Unfortunately, not everything does what it says on the packet. Water companies have a standard for what can be flushed safely down the toilet and wet wipes labelled as ‘flushable’ aren’t passing it, because they don’t break down quick enough once they’ve been flushed.

Over the last 12 months MCS, water companies and other organisations have been working together to improve the labelling on wet wipes and ensure that everyone knows that all wet wipes should be disposed of in the bin. This is in conjunction with the Blueprint for PR19 campaign, which includes stopping pollution as a key ask for water companies.

#binit4beaches in your home and help reduce wet wipes reaching our rivers, seas and beaches.

Rachel Wyatt
Water Quality Programme Manager, Marine Conservation Society

Hell or High Water – Tackling flooding and drought together with nature

Catastrophic floods caused millions of pounds of damage and turned people’s lives upside down in summer ten years ago. Government has done a lot since then, but flooding continues to devastate our country.

This year, despite a relatively dry start, the summer has still seen flash flooding events. So, why do we still throw our arms up in disarray and throw money after a flood event, rather than invest properly in protection? Why aren’t we better prepared when we know the problem will recur? People still cry out ‘I didn’t think it would happen to me’, but if we look at the geographic distribution of the last ten years of floods, we see it can happen anywhere:

We had flooding in 2008 in Wales and the North East, flooding in Cornwall in 2010, flooding in Southern England in the winter of 2013 (despite the dry period from 2010-2012), severe floods in winter 2015 in Cumbria and, more recently, flooding in the South West in 2016.

We have destroyed our local environment’s ability to cope with rainfall. You can build all the hard defences you like, but it will always push water elsewhere. Allowing nature to slow the water down and soak it up from the source to the sea helps to reduce the amount of water filling and over filling our drains and rivers.

What about earlier this year when people were worried about too little water and hoping for rain? If our flood defences, rivers and drainage systems weren’t managed to get rid of water as quickly as possible and instead allowed water to move more slowly and percolate through soil, we would be able to rely less on irrigation and our groundwater would be more resilient to drier winters.

It makes sense to invest in natural interventions that improve flood resilience and water storage at the same time. Unfortunately, money is spent either on water resources or on flooding, not on both, and not enough work has been done on trials and evidence for integrated management.

There are a number of opportunities coming up where this can change.

  • Water companies are producing their business plans and could propose to investigate the impact of measures to mitigate flooding on water resource resilience. As water companies now have a duty towards company and environmental resilience, this surely makes sense as a win-win?
  • DEFRA is spending £15 million on natural flood management schemes, but has not allocated any money for monitoring. These schemes need to be monitored, not just for one year or three, but long-term to highlight the multiple benefits they provide, such as environmental resilience to dry weather events and water resources resilience.
  • DEFRA’s 25 year environment plan has the potential to not only help the environment adapt in the face of climate change, but to help our communities adapt by creating, enhancing, protecting and restoring our natural spaces, and clearly recognising the benefits that the environment brings us.

So, the Government and public utilities have a big role to play preventing future flooding. In the meantime, your community can make a difference in your area: better soil management in agriculture, local tree planting, house protection measures, sustainable drainage systems. They’re our homes and businesses, and we can work with nature to help protect them. So, let’s face the music and go dance in the rain.

Hannah Freeman
Senior Government Affairs Officer, Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust

Where have the rivers gone?

River beds are dry, wildlife is suffering, but no one has come close to mentioning a drought. What’s going on?

Is this a footpath meandering under an old bridge?  I’m afraid not. It’s actually a river: the River Quin in Hertfordshire in spring this year.  And plenty of other rivers, particularly in the south and east of England, have looked like this for periods this spring and early summer: the River Rib in Hertfordshire, the Chess in Buckinghamshire, the River Colne in London and many more.

Is this what you expect your local river to look like under normal conditions?

It’s true that parts of the country haven’t seen much rain, despite some heavy downpours. Indeed, 2016/2017 was a particularly dry winter and if the dry weather continues into the autumn, we may find ourselves on the cusp of an official drought in the south east.  But right now water is coming out of my taps just fine and I’ve not heard any mention of a hosepipe ban. I wonder what the fish in the River Quin think about that? Perhaps they should move to my local paddling pool?

Dry spells and drought are likely to become more frequent because of climate change, but, before we blame everything on the weather and climate change, I want to highlight the underlying problem. In many parts of the country we’re pumping more water out of our rivers than can be naturally replenished, in many cases we’re using water wastefully and national regulations around water use are insufficient to stop our rivers drying up.

WWF’s recent report, Water for Wildlife: tackling drought and unsustainable abstraction, brings attention to this crisis: the scale of over-abstraction from rivers, how the current approach to preventing damage by abstraction is taking too long, how wildlife is suffering, and how many people are concerned by the current state of affairs.

  • 24% of rivers in England are at risk from too much water being abstracted.
  • Low river flows affect the whole river ecosystem, from the smallest bug to the biggest fish.
  • At the current rate of progress, it could be 2050 before today’s damage is addressed.
  • 68% of people are worried about the impact on the environment of taking too much water from rivers.
  • Over 80% of people agree the Government should do more to encourage homes and businesses to be more water efficient.

Rivers aren’t just important for wildlife, they’re also important to people – to us. They help us connect to the natural world: we like to walk and picnic by rivers, let our children paddle and our dogs swim in rivers, and use rivers for fishing and boating. Thriving, flowing rivers also bring many economic benefits.

We must restore our rivers before it is too late. As well as working with our colleagues in Blueprint and supporting the Blueprint for PR19 campaign, at WWF we’re calling on the Government to urgently address how we’re managing water, and for water companies to think about alternative ways of meeting water needs in their 2020-2025 business plans.  Specifically, we’re asking for:

  • A national strategy to cut water waste to include engaging the public about the value of water, making every home and business water efficient, and making paying for water fairer through universal water metering
  • A revised process for dealing with abstraction licences that are already causing damage to habitats and wildlife. This would include support for water companies and other abstractors, such as farmers and businesses, to enable them to cope with potential reductions in the amount of water they’re able to abstract from rivers
  • Environmental limits on all water abstractions, to ensure there is enough water for wildlife in every river, and a mechanism to manage how reductions in abstraction are managed and shared across river catchment areas
  • Important European Legislation that protects rivers, such as the Water Framework Directive, to be fully transposed after Brexit.

The need for these changes have long been recognised by the Government: their 2011 Water White Paper, Water for Life, promised new legislation to address over-abstraction; and the 2013 paper, Making the Most of Every Drop, set out the Government’s abstraction reform proposals.

But, Brexit has put pressure on parliamentary time, and these urgent reforms seem to have been kicked into the long grass. We strongly urge the new government to reconsider and push water management up the agenda, and for water companies to set out how they will sustainably manage abstraction in their next round of business plans – before we stumble across more lost rivers.

Catherine Moncrieff
Freshwater Programme and Policy Manager, WWF-UK