Last reviewed 24 September 2020

All surface water bodies in England are failing to meet chemical pollution standards and less than 20% of rivers meet ecological standards, Defra figures reveal.

Just 16% of England’s waters (14% of rivers) meet the criteria for “good ecological status” and none of the 4600 surface water bodies tested achieved “good chemical status”.

The highest combined rating, taking into account chemical pollution and ecological health, was “moderate” which was achieved in over 3700 water bodies, with most of the rest classed as poor or bad.

The Environment Agency (EA), which carried out the tests, has been widely criticised in the media for failing to protect the marine environment. But Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the organisation, defended its record.

In a letter to The Times newspaper, Boyd admitted the classification results “raise some serious questions” but argued that chemical pollutants such as phosphate, ammonia, cadmium and mercury, have all fallen significantly over the last two decades and there have been improvements elsewhere.

“In 2019, more than 70% of bathing waters achieved an ‘excellent’ rating compared with 28% at the highest standard in the 1990s. Our role in monitoring has led to £5bn of investment over the next 5 years to improve rivers and groundwater,” she added.

A blog posted by Defra’s press office said population growth, land use and climate change are having a significant impact on our water environment but admitted that the data shows “we are running to stand still.”

Sewage wastewater discharges by water companies, together with run-off from agricultural industries, are largely responsible for pollution in England’s waterways, according to the EA.

The EA also pointed out that its methods used to classify English water bodies to detect the presence of certain chemicals has also improved and explains why the results show that no surface water bodies have achieved “good chemical status”.

Defra said it is working hard to deliver its 25 Year Environment Plan which includes “ambitious water quality objectives” to improve at least three quarters of English waters to their natural state.