English rivers are running sick. And the list of causes is daunting: ammonia, nitrates, phosphates; sediments, waste water, slurry, building, draining, and dredging. These are just some of the explanations for the deterioration in the quality of our water over the last ten years, and for the scant ambition set out in the new River Basin Management Plans.
The plans would see only 21% of water bodies in good ecological condition by 2021, despite the EU target for all of our rivers, lakes and wetlands to be in good condition by 2015.
On the day when the Prime Minister is fighting to reduce bureaucracy in the EU, it’s worth noting that the Water Framework Directive lives up to the European principle of subsidiarity – that decisions should be taken at the right level. It sets out targets for water quality that will benefit nature and European citizens. It offers flexibility to take unique circumstances into account. It requires our Governments to report on how they’re doing.
It’s up to individual Member States to set out how they’ll fulfil those ambitions nationally and locally, and it’s at that point we’re failing.
It’s thanks to the EU that we know that four fifths of our water bodies have failed to meet good a decent standard for a decade and that plans for change will add up to a bare 2% improvement in the next five years. The problem is that the plans set out far too few measures to make a difference.
After the first plans were published in 2009, the European Commission concluded that the UK was relying too heavily on voluntary measures, instead of introducing mandatory action to tackle damage like diffuse agricultural pollution. The new plans do little to improve the situation.
But they do show the scale of the challenge and areas where small interventions could make a big difference. There are ample opportunities for Government to take cost-effective action.
All this will require joined up action across Government and the proposals for a new 25 year plan for nature provide a perfect vehicle to make this happen.
When the Prime Minister returns from EU talks, let’s hope he’ll hear the wake up call on water and his next big deal will be to make the environment a priority across Government.
Member of the Blueprint for Water Working Group
Head of Government Affairs Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust
Find me on Twitter at @RichardSBenwell
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author’s and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership
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