Every river in England has failed to meet water quality standards - here's what it means

Every river in England falls below the minimum standard, according to The Environmental Agency (Photo: Shutterstock)

None of England’s rivers meet legal water quality standards, according to new official classifications released by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

England’s rivers were assessed by the Environment Agency in 2019 to measure their ecological and chemical health, as per the requirements of an environmental directive, but the agency were unable to give even one of around 4,600 surface water and groundwater bodies a clean bill of health.

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What’s the problem?

A wide range of factors are considered by the agency relating to various ecological concerns, with each river then given a rating of ‘high’, ‘good’, ‘moderate’, ‘poor’ or ‘bad’.

The rivers are also assessed by a different set of measures, which look at chemical health, with the results informing whether a river passes or fails overall, depending on the presence and concentration of harmful substances.

None of the rivers were rated ‘high’ or ‘good’, while 3,740 of them were deemed to have ‘moderate’ overall health. A total of 793 classified as ‘poor’ and 137 rated ‘bad’.

Among the factors thought to be contributing to the issue are storm overflows, as well as chemical and agricultural pollution.

Is the situation getting worse?

This is the most recent assessment of the overall health of rivers in England since a similar exercise in 2016, and while the ecological health of the rivers have hardly changed in that time, a massive drop in their chemical health across the board is the main driver behind the Agency’s shocking findings.

The 2016 assessment graded the overall health of eight surface water bodies as ‘high’, 738 ‘good’, 2,978 as ‘moderate’, 822 as ‘poor’ and 140 as ‘bad’. And while 97 per cent of the bodies of water met DEFRA’s standards for chemical health in 2016, not one did in the most recent assessment.

Rivers campaigner and former rocker Feargal Sharkey is said to be preparing a legal challenge against the government over its management of England’s water systems.

Speaking to ENDS Report, he said, “We now know there’s not a single river in England that meets the requirements of the Water Framework Directive, 17 years after its implementation. DEFRA has proved itself to be a hotbed of mediocrity and incompetence.”

The dramatic drop-off in chemical health is partly attributable to “more sophisticated chemical monitoring” according to DEFRA, but environment minister Rebecca Pow MP said in a statement that “more needs to be done urgently” to address the issue.