The Environment Agency’s (EA) water quality monitoring programme has been significantly reduced, putting local rivers at risk of undetected water pollution, environmental groups claim.

Data obtained by environment research group Unearthed under freedom of information, reveals the number of water quality samples taken by the EA fell by 45% between 2013–2018. In 2013 inspectors took water quality samples at 10,797 sites and while that number gradually tapered off over the next four years, it dropped significantly last year to just 5796 — almost 40% less than the year before.

Stuart Singleton-White, Head of Campaigns at the Angling Trust, told Unearthed: “This dropoff in monitoring is incredibly concerning and very serious. Our rivers are deteriorating. The quality of rivers is getting worse. The number of pollution incidents seems to be increasing.”

A report published by the EA in the summer revealed the total number of water pollution incidents caused by the nine largest water and sewage companies in England increased from 1827 in 2017 to 1863 in 2018, while the number of serious category 1 and 2 incidents, that put the public at risk and seriously damage the environment, also rose from 52 in 2017 to 56 in the same year.

The EA has adopted a ‘risk-based approach to river quality monitoring — areas that are not considered high risk do not get the same level of scrutiny as high risk areas. Samples are taken from various points around England mainly to assess compliance against discharge permits, investigate pollution incidents and monitor biological and environmental quality.

But the European Commission questioned this approach arguing that; “there has been a significant reduction in the number of sites and water bodies monitored in operational monitoring programmes.

The Government has delayed the release of a key report about the country’s water quality targets until after the election. But Mary Creagh, who chaired the Environmental Audit Committee investigation into nitrate pollution last year, said the EA is under-resourced. Speaking to Unearthed she said; “the EA doesn’t have the staff and resources to monitor water quality in the UK and these new figures show how that monitoring has fallen off a cliff in recent years. It is completely unacceptable.”

Last reviewed 22 November 2019