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Call for Evidence

Water Quality in Rivers

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) is launching an inquiry into water quality in rivers. The EAC has previously inquired into nitrate pollution so this inquiry intends to focus on the water industry and urban diffuse pollution.

Water quality has implications across the whole ecological system, from plant life to fish stocks to the health of the population, yet surface, coastal and ground waters in England suffer from significant pollution problems (1).

Water pollution remains a major problem in achieving targets established under the EU Water Framework Directive (requiring all European surface water to reach “good ecological status” by 2015 with a maximum deadline of 2027), which will be carried over in some form to targets under the forthcoming Environment Act. In 2019, Government reporting showed that only 16% of English rivers met good ecological status and no river met good chemical status under the Water Framework Directive (2).

Untreated sewage is discharged directly into rivers across England and Wales from nearly 18,000 sewer overflows (3). Sewage is estimated to account for 55% of the rivers that are failing to reach good ecological status (4). This can lead to pollutants such as organic material that depletes the dissolved oxygen in the water, and other pollutants such as phosphorus, nitrates, ammonia, pathogens, and manmade toxic chemicals entering the water environment.

Urban runoff is a significant contributor to the overall pollution load suffered by watercourses. Pollution from highways can contain high levels of pollutants including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons which are persistent and carcinogenic. Unlike sewage works’ discharges, highways outfalls are not permitted and not monitored (5). This type of pollution can be prevented with the use of nature based solutions and sustainable drainage systems, which also contribute to the urban realm and increase biodiversity.

Water companies have committed to invest £4.6 billion between 2020 and 2025 towards environmental improvements. Despite the significant investments already made, Defra acknowledges progress has flat lined in recent years (6). Environment Agency chair Emma Howard Boyd stated that the performance of water companies against environmental standards had deteriorated in 2018 and was not improving in 2019 (7). At current rates of progress it will take over 200 years to reach the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan target of 75% of waters to be close to their natural state (8).

Inland water quality has been rising up the agenda as UK summers get hotter and more attractive for wild swimming. The River Wharfe in Ilkey and a section of the River Thames are applying for Bathing Water status to monitor public health and ensure that the rivers do not put people’s health at risk when they visit. No UK river has designated bathing water status while Germany has 38, Italy 73 and France 573 (9).

The Committee is inviting written submissions on:

• What are the best indicators for river water quality that could be used as targets being developed under the Environment Bill?

• How could drainage and sewage management plans, introduced by the Environment Bill, play a role in reduced sewer discharges?

• How adequate are the monitoring and reporting requirements around water company discharges? How can technology improve and assist with transparency and enforcement?

• What is the impact of plastic pollution and other materials on drainage and water quality in rivers and what should be done to mitigate it?

• How can consumers be persuaded to change their behaviour to minimise pollution?

• What is the required investment level needed to minimise storm overflows vs the scope for sustainable drainage and nature-based solutions?

• How effective are the planning policy and standards around sustainable drainage systems to reduce urban diffuse pollution in England?

• Should local authorities and highways agencies be given a duty to prevent pollution to watercourses without prior treatment?

• How effective is Ofwat’s remit and regulation of water companies? Does it facilitate sufficient investment in improvements to water quality, including sustainable drainage systems and nature-based solutions such as constructed wetlands?

• Is adequate investment being made in adapting water treatment systems to future climate change?

• How could the designation of inland bathing waters by water companies affect the costs of achieving the associated water quality standards?

Written evidence should be submitted through the Committee’s web portal by 11.59pm on Friday 5 February 2021. Respondents need not answer all the questions and evidence need not be limited to these questions. Submissions should be not more than 3,000 words but shorter submissions are welcomed and encouraged.

We encourage members of under-represented groups to submit written evidence. We aim to have diverse panels of Select Committee witnesses and ask organisations to bear this in mind when we ask them to choose a representative. We are currently monitoring the diversity of our witnesses.

It is recommended that all submitters familiarise themselves with the Guidance on giving evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Commons which outlines word count, format, document size, and content restrictions.


1 POSTnote. Diffuse pollution of water from agriculture

2 Defra. 2020. WFD Classification Status Cycle 2; Note: the monitoring and assessment of chemical status in surface water bodies has changed for 2019 data to include new priority substances and stricter standards

3 WWF. 2017. Flushed Away p5

4 WWF. 2017. Flushed Away p36

5 ENDS Report, 2020. Regulators ignoring horrific and poisonous road run off say EA insiders

6 DEFRA. 2020. Policy paper on environmental targets

7 Environment Agency, Water and sewerage companies’ performance report, July 2019, p1.

8 Environment Agency, Water is precious – taking action now will improve water quality for generations to come Blog by Pete Fox, August 2019.


This call for written evidence has now closed.

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