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The future for our rivers is not all that bright


The latest government plans for river health in England have been published. These plans set out how our rivers, lakes and streams will be managed and improved over the next six years. I had hoped to be able to write about their optimistic future but unfortunately I can’t. The River Basin Management Plans released by Defra today condemn most of them to remain in their current poor health.

Picture of the River Itchen, a chalk stream, surrounded by green vegetationRiver Itchen, Hampshire – a Special Area of Conservation © Kathy Hughes/WWF-UK

What do the plans say?

Most people reading this probably won’t have even read even one of the plans, and they would be all the better for it as most are several hundreds of pages long! I am one of the few geeks who has though and people should care that the government has missed (another) golden opportunity to significantly improve the health of our rivers.

Lack of ambition: Currently 17% of water bodies (that’s rivers, lakes and streams) in England are healthy and the government is only aiming to get 4% more up to standard – that is not 4% per year but over 6 years! This lowly ambition does not even get them back to where they were in 2009, which is completely unacceptable. By its own figures, the government has shown that we’d enjoy £8.5bn economic boost if rivers, lakes and wetlands were healthy. But, at its current sluggish pace, it will take almost a century for most of our rivers to be healthy – failing people and wildlife.

Failure to get to grips with the major threats: The second important point is that the plans fail to get to grips with the major polluters to our rivers. Farming is now the biggest pressure preventing rivers getting healthy. One of the results of this is that we all end up paying more for our water bills because it costs water companies more to clean the water. Wildlife also suffers, salmon stocks have plummeted in the last few decades as their crucial spawning grounds have been smothered in sediment. Last November, WWF-UK, with the Angling Trust and Fish Legal, took the government to court over its failure to protect our most precious rivers and wetlands from farm pollution. The government has now committed that they will do more to work with farmers.

It’s important to note that these plans aren’t a ‘nice to have’ – the government is required by law to produce and enforce them to improve the health of our rivers, lakes, streams, wetlands.

Dried-up river bed of the river Mimram in Hertfordshire.Dried-up river bed of the river Mimram in Hertfordshire © Jiri Rezac/WWF-UK

A poor track record

The first cycle of plans were published in 2009. Then, 26% of rivers were healthy but that figure has now decreased to a shocking 17%, partly due to a change in the way the Environment Agency monitors river health.

An effective government would evaluate why it failed to make a real improvement to rivers over the past six years and change its approach instead of repeating the failures of the past. But this hasn’t happened.

Ultimately, this means the good work done by some, like the many farmers improving their practices and the water companies investing millions, is squandered. So why, when our rivers provide so much and are such an important part of our heritage why does the government show such low ambition and seeming apathy for their health?

Looking ahead

We won’t be able to manage our rivers and wetlands properly until we get to grips with the pressures they are facing – whether that is pollution flowing off farms or too much taken out for public use. Local groups working in catchments have a crucial role to play and they need the necessary power and resources to make this happen.

WWF has worked with government, businesses and local groups for years to try and make some headway and improve river health and will continue to do so. Recently, the government proposed encouraging changes to the water abstraction regime, the system that manages how water companies, farmers and businesses take water from the environment. We’ll work with them to see these proposals turned into law.

We’re also halfway through WaterLIFE, a project we’re leading with the Rivers Trust and the Westcountry Rivers Trust, which is all about trying to speed up some of these improvements to our rivers by encouraging local communities and businesses to take action.

The updated River Basin Management Plans are available on the gov.uk website.

Volunteers rowing on the River Soar in LeicesterVolunteers on the River Soar in Leicester, a WaterLIFE demonstration catchment © Jiri Rezac/WWF-UK

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