Hot Topic: Water Quality In The UK

Water management consultants - H2O Building Services


While water quantity has long been hitting the headlines as one of the main issues of the water crisis, with extreme weather events like droughts and flooding taking centre stage over the last few years, water quality on the other hand has been flying under the radar somewhat… until now that is.


Keeping rivers, lakes and streams healthy is an absolute must to sustain life on earth, but it seems that water pollution is a growing problem in many parts of the world – especially here in the UK.


Figures from the United Nations Environment Programme – highlighted by the University of Birmingham – show that 34 per cent of 130,000 water bodies around the world failed to achieve good chemical status in 2020.


Furthermore, 100 per cent of rivers in England, Belgium, Germany and Sweden failed to hit the standards required, while more than two-thirds of rivers in the US saw similar results.


Part of the problem now is that there are thousands of pollutants at detectable concentrations to be found in the natural environment, with the use of fertilisers, pesticides and pharmaceuticals increasing worldwide.


In addition, climate change and land use are both having an impact on the water cycle, with pollution transport accelerated by extreme storms and altered surface/subsurface drainage. Natural ecosystem removal processes are also reduced by pressures such as these, increasing the risk of pollution as a result.


Spotlight on: The UK


The level of pollution in the UK is such that the country consistently ranks as one of the worst in Europe for coastal water quality, while just 14 per cent of the nation’s rivers are currently classified as being in good ecological health.


A recent parliamentary committee report described the rivers in England as a dangerous “chemical cocktail” of agricultural waste, sewage and plastic, all of which is naturally having a long-lasting impact on water quality, reducing biodiversity, affecting the ocean’s ability to store carbon and creating massive algae blooms that put ecosystems and aquatic life at serious risk.


And, of course, the increasing amount of pollution in our waterways also puts human health at risk. Who can forget what happened in Sunderland back in August last year, where at least 57 people came down with sickness and diarrhoea after competing at the World Triathlon Championship Series.


Sewage pollution in particular appears to be especially problematic, with recent research from the University of Oxford showing that sewage discharge into rivers has a bigger impact on water quality and local biodiversity than agricultural runoff.


It was found that treated sewage discharge was the best predictor of sewage fungus abundance, bottom-dwelling algae and high nutrient levels, regardless of whether land use was urban or agricultural.


How does sewage pollution happen?


Part of the problem in the UK is that our ageing infrastructure system is no longer fit for purpose, with much of it constructed during Victorian times.


Investments on the part of water companies have been insufficient to afford the natural environment the protection it needs, so instead sewer overflows (of which there are 18,000) are used to discharge raw sewage into coastal waters and rivers.


While these discharges are legally permitted during periods of heavy and intense rainfall to prevent sewage from backing up into properties, water companies have also been making so-called dry spills with increasing regularity, using combined sewer overflows for discharge when there has been no rain.


This, coupled with the fact that regulation is currently too weak to serve as any kind of real deterrent, means that there’s no real pressure on water suppliers to make significant changes to their behaviour.


It’s also just emerged that the government is delaying its pledge to bring an end to water companies being able to self-report environmental performances, which means that the system continues to be easily open to abuse.


What action is being taken?


Earlier this month (February 20th), the government announced that inspections of water companies will more than quadruple in a bid to crack down on poor environmental performance.


More than 930 such inspections of supplier assets have already been completed so far this financial year, but the aim is to increase this to 4,000 a year by the end of March 2025 and then up to 10,000 from April 2026.


An increase in unannounced inspections is also on the cards to strengthen oversight of companies and drive down reliance on the self-monitoring programme, which was set up back in 2009.


Alan Lovell, chair of the Environment Agency, said: “Last year we set out measures to transform the way we regulate the water industry to uncover non-compliance and drive better performance.


“Today’s announcement builds on that. Campaign groups and the public want to see the Environment Agency better resourced to do what it does best – regulate for a better environment.


“Proposals to get extra boots on the ground to increase inspection visits will help further strengthen our regulation of the industry.”


Other action taken to improve the water environment includes monitoring 100 per cent of England’s storm overflows and removing the cap on civil penalties for suppliers while broadening the scope so that more immediate action can be taken against polluters.


The Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan has also been expanded to improve protection for coastal and estuarine waters, while £60 billion has been made available over 25 years to refurbishing ageing infrastructure and reduce sewage spills by hundreds of thousands each year.


How can businesses help?


Including water quality management in your business practices means you can be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. This can be achieved through developing supplier codes of conduct, training, awareness initiatives and contractual obligations across the supply chain.


The first step towards improving water management is to deepen your understanding of how you use water and where.


A water audit of your entire site will tell you what you need to know, allowing you to identify areas ripe for improvement. This in turn will ensure you’re better protecting the environment and boosting your green credentials at the same time.


If you’d like to find out more, get in touch with the H2o Building Services team today.