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.