Water Industry News

New Funding Wave To Boost Water Quality

Water quality in the UK has been coming under serious fire for some time now, with a House of Commons Committee report on the state of the nation’s waterways revealing that there wasn’t a single river in England uncontaminated by chemicals, with just 14 per cent classified as having good ecological status.


Agricultural runoff from fields and untreated sewage discharges are the main causes of this pollution, with data for 2023 showing a 54 per cent hike in the number of sewage spills compared to the year before.


Sewage discharges are permissible under certain circumstances and in line with environmental permits, but a lack of necessary investment in the pipe network (much of which dates back to Victorian times) means that pipe capacity is regularly exceeded.


This, in turn, means that growing amounts of untreated sewage is now being discharged, exacerbated by the fact that water companies are increasingly engaging in dry spills, where the combined sewer overflow system is used even when no heavy rainfall has been seen.


Raw sewage is harmful to both humans and wildlife, affecting local biodiversity and putting people’s health at risk… but it doesn’t have to be this way and, in fact, other countries in Europe have seen significant improvements in water quality over the last few years, with more than eight out of ten monitored bathing waters in Europe now boasting excellent water quality.


How unhealthy are UK rivers?


Under the Water Framework Directive (WFD), river health can be measured in terms of either chemical or ecological status. Chemical status looks at the level of chemical pollution present in water samples, while ecological status looks at the abundance of different species living in the waterways, which is a good indication of the river’s overall health.


The most recent WFD data shows little change between 2019 and 2022, with just 151 out of the 3,553 river stretches in England improving and moving up an ecological standard. In fact, 158 got worse. River sampling is also on the wane, with almost six per cent fewer stretches receiving health classifications in 2022 compared to 2019.


The good news is that the government does seem to be taking action to address the issue of water pollution around the country.


For example, a new Water Restoration Fund was recently set up to see up to £11 million in water company fines and penalties reinvested to drive direct improvements to the water environment. Here, grant funding will be offered to support local groups, landowners, farmers and community schemes to support on-the-ground projects.


Some 100 per cent of England’s storm overflows have now been fitted with event duration monitors, which measure how, when and for how long these facilities are in operation. This provides the public with transparent information on when discharges are taking place, as well as allowing regulators to hold suppliers to account for illegal spills.


And a significant infrastructure programme is now underway, with £60 billion set to be invested over the next 25 years by water companies to tackle storm sewage discharges by 2050.


New pollution targets will mean suppliers need to implement measures such as increasing network capacity and treating sewage before it’s discharged in order to prevent pollution and protect public health. Failing to hit these targets could see them either having to return money to customers or paying out substantial fines.


The Water Environment Improvement Fund


To help boost water quality in England even further, the government has just announced that an additional £11.5 million in funding will be provided to help support 180 local projects around the country, cleaning up rivers and lakes, planting thousands of trees and protecting local communities from flooding.


Projects due to be funded in 2024 include the second phase of the York Urban Becks project, where the aim is to create a more natural river course to support local wildlife and biodiversity, as well as the Limestone Becks river restoration project in Lincolnshire, intended to improve habitats for a range of wildlife.


The Woods for Devon project, meanwhile, will involve the creation of woodland to improve water quality, drive carbon capture and provide further support for wildlife.


This funding uplift comes on top of the existing £3 million that has been allocated for the Environment Agency thus far this financial year to help it improve water quality in England.


It’s expected that this additional wave of investment will result in an extra 300km of rivers around the country being afforded better protection and improvements, as well as supporting the restoration and creation of approximately 160 hectares of coastal and inland waters.


Commenting on the announcement, Mark Lloyd – CEO of The Rivers Trust – said: “Increased funding is a very important ingredient in the recipe for successfully restoring our rivers to good health and so this is welcome news.


“We are increasingly seeing the private and philanthropic sectors getting involved to match this kind of funding which enables this government support to go even further, enabling us to have a greater positive impact in more places.”


However, as Rivers Trust figures show, while there are some excellent projects ongoing to improve river health on a smaller scale, the national picture shows a different story, with transport, farms, towns and wastewater having the biggest impact on river health.


Given how big the scale of the problem is, there is no quick solution that can be adopted and a collaborative approach will be required to clear waterways of pollution and build resilience into the river network.


Businesses, naturally, have their part to play in this, working alongside their workforces, supply chains and local communities to reduce their water footprint and find innovative solutions to a complex issue.


If you’d like to find out more about how you as a business can boost your blue credentials today, get in touch with the SwitchWaterSupplier.com team to see how we can help.