Environment Agency checks on water abstraction halve in last five years: rivers pay the price

During the AI conference at Bletchley Park, this week, the Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, when asked by Channel 4 News about the dangers of AI responded by saying, “What we can’t do is expect companies to mark their own homework”. Yet for years, that is precisely what the government and the Environment Agency have been doing when it comes for water companies.

We know, that “marking their own homework” or self-reporting at it is known, has been a disaster. There is an ongoing legal investigation by the EA into over 2,000 sewage treatment works that have been potentially discharging illegally into our own waters.

Now, thanks to a joint investigation by the Guardian and Watershed, we discover that the EA is also failing in its duty to properly monitor and hold to account those water companies and businesses who abstract water from our rivers.

The huge decline in abstraction inspection was a story broken by the guardian newspaper


Our rivers need three things to ensure they remain healthy and good places for fish: good water quality, good habitats for our fish, and a good flow of water. This failure by the EA to properly monitor those who take water from our rivers is alarming and could have serious consequences for our ability to ensure there is enough water left in the environment for fish and other wildlife.

This is a crucial time for our rivers. All of England’s water companies have now submitted their business plans for review by the government, including how they are going to manage our water resources in the future. And the regional water resource groups (made up of water companies in each region) have set out plans for the management of water resources to 2050 and beyond.

We know that both the South-East and East of England are officially categorised as being “water stressed” and England faces a potential short fall in water of 4bn litres a day by 2050 unless action is taken to reduce demand, fix leaks and ensure we are managing the use of water carefully, including leaving enough behind to ensure healthy rivers. This is even more important when you add in our changing weather patterns as climate change begins to impact; from the drought of 2022 to the storms and flood currently sweeping the country. All of this will have a severe impact on our rivers. In 2021, the previous chair of the EA, Emma Howard-Boyd, pointed out that due to climate change, summer rivers flows could drop by as much as 82% by 2050 if the planet exceeds the threshold of a 2 degree C rise in average temperature.

Against this background, the failure of the EA in its duty to properly monitor how much water is being taken from our rivers and groundwater, is even more worrying. In the water stressed South-East and East, we have seen inspections in Kent, south London and East Sussex fall by 67% from 450 in 2018-19 to 148 in 2022-23. In East Anglia they fell from 824 to 318, while in Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire they dropped from 173 to 67. Outside of these water stressed regions Greater Manchester, Merseyside, and Cheshire saw inspections fall from 139 to just 47.

Stuart Singleton-White, Head of Campaigns at the Angling Trust, said,

“There is a huge amount of focus on the pollution of our rivers. But people should be just as alarmed about the over abstraction of both rivers and groundwater. A lack of water flowing in our rivers is having a devastating impact on our wildlife. Just look at our chalk streams, many of which dry up in the summer because too much water is taken from the aquifers before it even reaches the river. And this lack of water makes the impact of pollution worse because the rivers are less able to dilute it when it happens. Over abstraction and pollution are two sides of a very damaging coin that is in the process of killing so many of our rivers. The underfunded Environment Agency is letting us down again. They are failing on pollution, and they are failing to ensure abstraction is managed properly. Responsibility for this failure lies at the door of government and the lack of political leadership needed to ensure our rivers and fish are properly protected.”


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