Is the Environment Agency fit for purpose?

According to Unearthed, possibly not.

According to the Environment Agency, yes.

According to me, well read on and see…in particular I want to comment on the Unearthed article which, while having a core of truth is guilty of misrepresentation in places.

Staff reductions

Let’s start with the gross misrepresentation of

“nearly 1,000 EA staff – all of which were in corporate services such as finance, HR and IT – have been transferred to the department since July 2016.”

In practice this doesn’t represent a loss to EA field staff (the ones who collect samples, investigate pollution incidents and inspect premises) and doesn’t really represent a loss to the EA as these people are still providing the same services to the EA. What bothers me about this particular aspect of the arrangements is that they may not have the same priorities as directly employed staff. You can bet your bottom dollar that once in Defra any flexibility of movement or interpretation or creativity will quickly get knocked out of them.

A paradox resolved?

The article makes a big play on the number of inspections being reduced. So what? Our drinking water is self-monitored by the privatised water companies and is generally (and correctly in my informed opinion) considered to be amongst the best in Europe. A good self regulation scheme, with strictly controlled sampling regimes, quality assured analysis and routine reporting of results to both the regulator and the public can lead to a massive improvement in quality at negligible cost to the regulator. Maybe, just maybe, this is what lies behind the apparent paradox of reduced inspections yet also reduced non-compliances? I would welcome a comment from the EA (or perhaps some recently departed member of staff) on this proposition.

Enforcement

A big play is made about the reduced number of prosecutions and a shift towards Enforcement Undertakings. (I will overlook, no I will not, the factual error suggesting that the EA imposes fewer fines. The EA does not impose ANY fines, they are matters for the independent court system).

I personally support the concept of Enforcement Undertakings and want to see them used much more extensively. Believe me, from the discussions I have had with the EA they do not regard them as “less-costly and less-risky”, in fact I see the parts of the EA putting obstacles in the way of their use rather than facilitating them. The great advantage of an EU is that the money, which as to be of a similar amount to that which would have been levied as a fine, goes directly to environmental charities to spend improving the environment rather than into the ‘chancellor’s back pocket’. The recent emergence of Environmental Liability Notices is a development that we should follow with interest.

 “Things are (not) getting worse”

The article propagates the oft repeated view that

“Only 14% of the rivers in England are classed as having ‘good ecological status’, down from 27% in 2010.”

I read statements such as this with dismay. Having spent the last 42 years of my life dedicated to improving our rivers, let me tell you that they are better than ever.

When I started on the River Aire in 1974, the prospect of fishing the river in the centre of Leeds was laughable, now we have reliable records of salmon being caught there and we are starting on a major project (DNAire, a partnership project with the EA) to return salmon to the headwaters and hence stimulate a sustainable migratory fish population.

Nearly all of these reported changes are to do with standards so low as to be unachievable (e.g. Phosphate in sewage effluents) or recategorisation of water bodies using rules drawn up to report compliance in line with European Legislation, many of which are much more lax in other countries. If any of the complainers can truly convince me that matters are getting worse, then I promise to pack up tomorrow and consider my life’s work to have been a waste of time. 

Investigations and Sampling

Now let nobody get the idea that I am not critical of the EA, for I am indeed critical of certain aspects of how they go about their work (and not just in the environmental field, as a member of the RFCC I have been a persistent champion of getting more from the FCRM programme). We can quote examples of grossly inadequate incident investigations, damaging riverbank maintenance, inadequate levels of sampling and monitoring of their  own capital schemes and of baseline environmental data (the silence on the long standing Strategic Monitoring Review is worrying) etc. These are to some extent caused by staff and money shortages and need challenging. The prospect of many of these functions being handed over to an even less well resourced Civil Society is worrying. Catchment Hosts are already expected to draw up Integrated Catchment Plans using the grand sum of £15000 per year (yes, thousands of pound not millions!), the funding we might receive to do some of this other work fills me with no enthusiasm whatsoever.

Summary

Yes, by all means criticise the EA for their weaknesses, but the argument is diluted by inaccuracies and misrepresentations.

Your thoughts are welcome, I have opened Comments on this post.

Spawning Season for Trout

A brown trout redd in the middle of the photo, visible as a clean area of gravel where the stones have been turned recently
A brown trout redd in the middle of the photo, visible as a clean area of gravel where the stones have been turned recently

If you build it, they will come….

The ‘Field of Dreams’ hypothesis often used by conservationists is certainly bearing fruit on our river. According to members of Bradford City Angling Association (http://www.bradfordcityaa.co.uk/fly-fishing/), who have been doing lots of sterling work to improve habitat in both the river and along the banks of the Aire near to Gargrave, brown trout have started to spawn.

The majority of the ‘redds’, the nests where fish lay their eggs, have been created in areas where the anglers have placed woody deflectors (logs) and transplanted water weed to clean up the gravels on the river bed.  This is great news as hopefully it will mean more fish and hence more wildlife like kingfishers and otters that rely on those fish, to be enjoyed by all of us.

A grainy zoom of the picture above, and the two trout are just visible within the white ellipse
A grainy zoom of the picture above, and the two trout are just visible within the white ellipse

It also bodes well for our DNAire project as it shows that if we can get salmon and sea trout back up the river to Skipton and beyond, they too will have good places in the river to spawn.

So, please keep a look out for this amazing spectacle. The photos here demonstrate what to look for; essentially cleaned areas of gravels where the stones have been turned – these may be about 1 metre or more in length. The Wild Trout Trust (https://www.wildtrout.org/) with whom Bradford City anglers have been working closely to improve the habitat, have produced a useful document to identify redds, available on their webpage of the trout lifecycle, here (https://www.wildtrout.org/content/trout-lifecycle).

However, please try not to disturb any fish that are actively spawning – even just standing and pointing from the top of the bank can be off-putting and grayling anglers that might be wading should be especially vigilant. After all, would you like to be interrupted?

A brown trout redd in the middle of the photo, visible as a clean area of gravel where the stones have been turned recently
A brown trout redd in the middle of the photo, visible as a clean area of gravel where the stones have been turned recently

 

With special thanks to Prof Jon Grey of the Wild Trust Trust who wrote this piece.

River Aire inspires poets

Daltaire
Yes, I know this is actually the canal but it’s such a great shot!

In the lead-up to Saltaire Festival, our River Aire has been inspiring poets.

The competition, with the theme of ‘The World in Saltaire’, attracted entries from across the country and from poets of all ages.

The winning poems have been published in the latest edition of the Saltaire Review and will be on the BBC Big Screen in City Park, Bradford, later in the summer.

The winning poets have been invited to read at the Festival poetry event on 11th September at the Dandelion Café, where Sharena Satti’s poetry will also be featured.

The winner of the Adult class was Mark Batty and I quote his winning poem here with his permission.

The Aire by Mark Taylor Batty

The rain pleads down over sandstone grassy Dales;
Tight stone walls, cudding sheep, sheer open land.
Space pelted sodden, sheeted grey skyfall,
Rained and soaked, wrung and rinsed downstream
Where becks released from stillness skip gleefully
And all shove down, collude to make the Aire.

The eager rush steadies as it heads around Skipton,
Cutting at the turns, rinsing through low leaves,
Splaying into the depth of the valley,
Playing in brief eddies to wait and catch up,
Before gliding under the canal aqueduct
To corner and face the home run to Saltaire.

By the bolted boating hut, shift by Hirst mill,
Swish low, stream bold, thick, deep like soup
To the Boathouse Inn, and nonchalant ducks,
Where the heavy river swells like a distended belly
And bloats sated to claim the summer’s shore
Spilling at the path in the park.

The river would kiss the canal here by the thin green bridge,
Were it not for the pub, a gooseberry in between.
The mill then shouldering the canal away to Shipley
The river veering to roar its claim over the weir,
And farewell down dirty to Otley Road bridge.
Then confidently on to beat that canal to Leeds.

©Mark Taylor-Batty 2018

Is water company pollution getting worse?

Pollution from sewage outfallThe recent publication of the Environment Agency’s summary of the environmental performance of the 9 English water companies has led to the usual scary headlines about increasing pollution in our rivers. Let’s explore the topic.

Those headlines come not least from The Angling Trust who claim that:

The Environment Agency has published a report this week has highlighted an increase in the number of the most serious ‘category 1’ pollution incidents from the nine largest water companies’ operations over the past two years from 4 in 2015 to 9 in 2016 and 11 in 2017.  Such incidents can be catastrophic for fisheries and wildlife in the stretches of river affected, but there are also concerns about lower level pollution which can contribute to the ‘death of rivers by a thousand cuts’. That is the main reason for 50% of aquatic wildlife being in decline and 13% of aquatic species being threatened with extinction.

An alternative view might be expected from Water UK, the industry representative body:

The Environment Agency notes in the report that there has been a significant improvement in water quality, and acknowledges the industry’s role in achieving it through substantial investment. By 2020, water companies will have invested around 25 billion in environmental work since 1995, and this action will mean around 10,000 miles of UK rivers have been improved and protected since then.

In addition, the water industry has invested well over 2.5 billion since the 1990s to protect UK bathing waters, with the result that two thirds of UK beaches are now classed as excellent, compared with less than a third 25 years ago.

Even the BBC got in on the act:

Water companies are still not doing enough to protect streams and rivers, the Environment Agency reports.

Let’s finally take a snippet from the EA’s own blog on the report:

We are pleased to report that the overall performance of water and sewerage companies continues to improve….We have also seen widespread improvement to asset management, enabling quicker action to reduce pollution, and companies have invested in improving flood risk management. This shows a commitment to public wellbeing, resilience of the service to customers and protecting the wider environment.

Your average punter, not necessarily well-versed in the data or the politics, might wonder where the truth lies. You will not be surprised to hear that, as with much of the stuff we read in the media, by and large they are all correct, although each party emphasises the parts of the report that suits their aims. The Angling Trust is a lobbying organisation who actually took the government to court for an inadequate response to EU legislation on improving water quality (The Water Framework Directive); Water UK – well, whose side do you imagine they are on? And finally the EA who seem to have produced a fairly balanced summary in their blog. In her introduction to the report, Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the EA highlights this apparent discrepancy:

All of this could lead you to believe that England’s water is in dire straits, but water quality is better than at any time in over a century, thanks, in part, to the hard work and investment of water companies.

Maybe now is the time for me to declare a past interest. I worked for Yorkshire Water for 26 years, initially as a Pollution Prevention Officer on the Aire and ultimately as Head of Safety Health and Environment in which role I had strategic responsibility for monitoring and challenging the company’s environmental performance and negotiating at regional and national level with regulators including the EA. So I claim to know a bit about both sides of this story and let me tell you that the River Aire, along with most of Yorkshire’s rivers, has been transformed since 1974 – have a look at this film for a bit of an insight. 

I want to start my comments with a typical headline “Serious pollution incidents on the rise”. Since the reported peak of 135 incidents per year  in 2005, such Category 1 & 2 incidents have fallen to 52 with a year-on-year reduction for the last 5 years. There have never been fewer pollution incidents per year! Yes, there has been a disappointing increase in the most serious incidents (from 9 to 11 – I am surprised that nobody headlines this “22% increase in serious pollution”) and the target should certainly be zero. If you want to put this in context, the companies are responsible for tens of thousands of kilometres of sewers (taking away your waste) and thousands of sewage works (treating that waste); add to that the water treatment and supply network (yes, they can cause pollution too) and the possibilities for infrastructure failure should be all to obvious. This is not to excuse the companies, because they certainly could do better and the fact that they have spent £billions improving the systems which were miserably neglected by the predecessor local authorities has certainly helped.

Please click on the table below to show all of it – it’s a big image!

Water company environmental perfomace details from EA repeort 2017Fortunately for The Aire Rivers Trust, we do not live in the South West, for SW Water has an ongoing record of poor compliance and, taken with Northumbrian Water they are responsible for most of the current headline issues. According to Table 1 in the report, our regional company, Yorkshire Water, has maintained or improved performance against all of the targets reported on in this report, although there is still room for improvement to meet the future aspirations of the EA and ourselves. Those aspirations for the future are admirable:

Performance expectations 2015 to 2020
In 2013, we set out to the water companies our expectations in a number of areas, including their operational performance. We give the full list of expectations in Annex 2. Below are our expectations of companies that are directly relevant to the EPA. We expect:

  • a plan in place to achieve 100% compliance for all licences and permits
  • a reduction in category 1 and 2 pollution incidents, trending towards zero by 2020
  • a trend to minimise all pollution incidents (category 1 to 3) by 2020 with at least a third reduction compared to 2012
  • high levels of self-reporting of pollution incidents with at least 75% of incidents self-reported by 2020
  • that management of sewage sludge treatment and re-use should not cause pollution and must follow the Sludge (Use in Agriculture) Regulations and the Code of Practice for Managing Sewage Sludge, Slurry and Silage or Environmental Permitting Regulations (EPR)
  • environmental improvement schemes to be planned well and delivered as agreed (for example, Asset Management Plans and Water Resource Management Plans)
  • security of supply outcomes to be achieved as defined in Water Resource Management Plans

We will continue to work with out regional company, Yorkshire Water, to achieve these aims, whilst holding them to account where necessary. If you want to help in this important work improving the environment, then get in touch and ask about volunteering opportunities.

One for the art lovers

I came across this fantastic poster by John Atkinson in Ottowa, Canada and thought you might appreciate it.

Art school of fish
Art School of Fish

If anyone catches anything like these in the Aire, please don’t tell anyone!

Coniston Cold weir is no more

Coniston Cold Weir before demolition
Coniston Cold Weir – 2004

Coniston Cold Weir - gone!
Coniston Cold Weir – gone!

With support from the owners of the weir, then months in the planning, demolishing the redundant weir at Coniston took  2 days over 18/19th June 2018. The work was done by Jon Grey of the Wild Trout Trust and his contractors. The Environment Agency and ART also took part in the planning process.

The photos show the weir before and after removal. It was most encouraging to know that a shoal of minnows went through as the demolition was actually taking place.

The short time-lapse video below, courtesy of Prof Jon Grey and The Wild Trout Trust, shows the transformation of the river as the weir comes down. Enjoy!

Good News for our DNAire project as this will allow migratory and other fish to move even further upstream to spawn

River Aire Cleanup 15 April 2018

Join Wild Society and Leeds and District Amalgamated Society of Anglers as we team up to remove trash from the River Aire.

The Aire Rivers Trust is delighted to see the cleanup of the Aire spreading even further afield and to support this new venture.

This is a Land and Banks cleanup event: we’re looking for volunteers on foot to clean along the riverbanks collecting trash and tidying up the public areas
Everyone welcome.

The Fire Brigade will be on site to look after the safety; toilets are provided in Thwaite Museum and over £400 worth of prizes will be given away sponsored by Erics Angling, Bob-Co Tackle and Wild Society!

Join in on Sunday 15th April, from 10:00 until 15:00 – come for as little or as long as you like. You can just turn up, and if you want to keep up to date beforehand then register your interest on this Facebook page.

Trees, trees and yet more trees…

No, this is not a picture of the River Aire in midsummer, but at last weeks meeting of our Trustees, I did make a very high level reference to the millions of trees likely to be planted in the Aire valley in coming years. This will happen as a consequence of the recent announcement of Northern Forest (of which White Rose Forest is part and which ART supports as a formal partner), YWS’ commitment to plant a million trees, Leeds City Region’s similar commitment to increase the tree cover in the region to 15%(?) which is several million trees, and the many NFM proposals including one for Leeds Flood Alleviation Scheme Part 2 which proposes to spend several £million on NFM. Some of the Angling Clubs in the valley have already been doing their bit and their contribution will continue to be very welcome and helpful. And of course the Upper Aire Project has been planting trees up there for several years now.

My basic point was that we (me, WRF, EA, LCC and others) are doing our best to get all this possible activity collated. It’s important not to control it all but to help some sense of co-ordination, collaboration and mutual learning.

The landscape implications of all this work may be significant and one of the stakeholder engagement issues currently identified, but yet to be tackled, is the impact on the wider community of this change. Watch this space – as well as the countryside.

Geoff Roberts – Chairman, Aire Rivers Trust

Higher charges for environmental work?

Pound signThe Environment Agency recently published a consultation on future charges for many of the topics they regulate.

Whilst many of the proposals are uncontentious, some threaten to seriously undermine the good work of Trusts, anglers and may others who do small or medium scale environmental works. In particular, some of the charges for small in-stream works permits could rise by 750%. This could result in the oddity for small schemes that the cost of the permit is greater than the cost of the works themselves! And this is for environmental improvement work!

Many organisations have put in some fairly damning comments, and I myself have described the consultation as ‘inept’ when the EA claimed in a recent paper to the Regional Flood and Coastal Committee that:

We are also refining our approach to regulating flood risk activities. The aim is to be more risk-based in our approach, focussing our permitting and compliance on the highest risk activities and enabling more lower risk activities to be undertaken under simpler standard rules permits or to be carried out under exemptions.

I have responded on behalf of our Trust and personally using the following two responses as sources of information and comment:

The Rivers Trust   (our ‘parent’ body)

The Wild Trout Trust

The consultation closes on 28th January and I know that the EA have been swamped with responses. Watch this space, for I’m pretty sire that the current proposals will be scrapped.

 

Geoff Roberts

25th January 2018

‘Tis the season to be planting….

Lothersdale Tree Planters
One of Bradford City Angling Association’s tree planting work parties

Winter weather may be a good excuse to stoke the fire, contemplate the drinks cabinet closely and turn one’s back to the outdoors. However, that cold weather also causes dormancy in trees which means winter is the ideal time to get out planting, provided the ground is not too water-logged or too frozen!

Trees are increasingly recognised as being a valuable component of natural flood management – see, for instance, this blog . They intercept rain and slow it reaching the ground, even when they are bare. Their roots allow water to penetrate more deeply into the soil. Their physical presence slows flow when rivers overtop banks and their trunks act as natural filters, trapping debris that is carried along in flood water. Their roots within the soil also increase the resilience of river banks by binding them together. They provide a host of other ecosystem benefits too, such as shade for rivers during the summer, and food and nest sites for insects and birds.

The Aire valley is crying out for more trees. Giant strides have been made by the partners of the Upper Aire Project in initiating some quite large scale planting schemes towards the top end of the system. However, every little helps….

Before Christmas, at least three groups were out and about planting. Anglers are the eyes and ears on the river bank, and often true champions of river stewardship. Members of both Bradford City Angling Association  and Skipton Angling Association have been busy on the banks of the Aire where they have riparian rights, and in close partnership with the relevant riparian land owners and the Environment Agency over 1500 trees have been planted near the river at various locations with more to come. Skipton AA are also planting on the becks feeding Embsay Reservoir, with permission from Yorkshire Water.

Lotherdale 1
Lothersdale village residents planting up a track verge to intercept overland flow

Towards the top end of a major Aire tributary, the villagers of Lothersdale have also been identifying areas suitable for planting. They were one of the first recipients of a Woodland Trust Community Woodland Grant to rehabilitate the woodland in the centre of the village and along Lothersdale Beck.

Now they have planted approximately 1000 trees to link established copses, create shelter-belts and interception belts to slow the flow of water reaching the small becks. Word of mouth has spread the news and various local landowners are interested in establishing further planting on their properties.

Lotherdale 2
Planting on the Aire at Eshton Beck confluence

Where have the trees come from? Well, some have been lovingly grown on by interested folk, collecting acorns for example. The majority, however, for these small scale initiatives have come from either the Woodland Trust  or the Trust for Conservation Volunteers , in some cases facilitated by the Wild Trout Trust .

 

 

Community packs of trees in various permutations and combinations are available to groups and schools – see their websites for details.

Planting by Lothersdale village residents alongside the Pennine Way
Planting by Lothersdale village residents alongside the Pennine Way

 

Thanks to (Prof.) Jon Grey, a Lothersdale resident and Research and Conservation Officer for The Wild Trout Trust for this article.