UK Progress on Reducing Nitrate Pollution Contents

2Water Quality

11.The UK’s water quality regulation is underpinned by EU Directives and is implemented primarily through secondary regulation and guidance. This Chapter sets out how this regulation is implemented and the progress that is being made in meeting the requirements and targets set out in this legislation.

The Status of Water Bodies

12.As mentioned above, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) requires EU Member States to achieve good status in all bodies of surface and groundwater by 2015 unless there are grounds for derogations in specific and limited circumstance whereby the achievement of good status can be extended to 2021 or 2027 at the latest.42 The WFD is supported by the Groundwater Directive and an amending Directive (2014/80/EU), which sets baseline groundwater quality standards. More detail on the WFD, the Groundwater Directive and their transposition into UK legislation is provided in Annex 2 of this Report.

Penalties for Polluting Water

13.The main water pollution offences in England and Wales are set out in the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016 (as amended). It is an offence to cause or knowingly permit a water discharge activity or groundwater activity, except under and to the extent it is authorised by, an environmental permit. The maximum penalty for an individual on conviction in a magistrates’ court is a fine up to £50,000 or 12 months imprisonment; if convicted in a Crown Court an unlimited fine or imprisonment of up to 5 years (or both).43 Large companies, such as water companies, can face fines of up to 100% of their pre-tax net profits for the year.44

Progress on Achieving Good Water Quality

14.Defra’s Single Departmental Plan, published in May 2018, includes an objective to “ensure clean and plentiful water”. More specifically, it said it would: safeguard and improve the quality of surface and ground waters through an effective and modern framework of protection and tools; reach or exceed objectives in our river basin management plans for rivers, lakes coastal and ground waters that are specially protected; protect bathing waters, shellfisheries, protected sites for wildlife and marine water quality.45

15.In February 2018, the Environment Agency published the State of the Environment Report: Water, which found there has been a decline in the condition of English rivers46 The Report found that 86% of English rivers had not reached good ecological status in 2016, up from 79% in 2014, with phosphorous, and to a lesser extent nitrates, the main factors.47 It also reported that water quality issues were the cause of 38% of all fish test failures and 61% of invertebrate test failures in 2015.

16.The State of Water Report also stated that in 2016 there were 314 serious pollution incidents. In July 2017, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) provided historic figures regarding the number of serious water pollution incidents, less serious incidents and prosecutions since 2007:48

17.The figures show that, overall, the number of serious incidents has reduced since 2007, though they have remained above 300 incidents a year since 2013. Less serious incidents have shown a more marked decline, while successful prosecutions have also declined significantly, which as we discuss in Chapter 5, might reflect the Environment Agency’s view that prosecutions are to be seen as a last resort. The most recent analysis of water pollution incidents, published by the Environment Agency in December 2017, indicates that farming and the water industry are the biggest sources of major water pollution incidents:49

18.In July 2018, the Environment Agency published the performance of the nine largest water companies in England. In terms of overall serious incidents, progress has plateaued in recent years after higher levels between 2010 and 2014:50

Figure 2. Numbers of category 1 to 3 pollution incidents and trend for the 9 water companies 2005 to 2017

19.However, the most serious incidents (category one incidents) increased from 9 incidents in 2016 to 11 in 2017.51 The Environment Agency said that water companies had not done enough to tackle pollution in rivers and streams.52 In 2017, water companies were fined a total of £21.6m for offences.53 Several water companies were singled out for poor performance. South West Water was told that it needed to make “significant improvements to their environmental performance”. The company reported 169 sewage related incidents in 2017 and for one incident was fined £142,524 after it was found to have allowed inadequately treated effluent to enter rivers at two locations. Northumbrian Water was the worst for permit compliance in 2017 in relation to rules surrounding the discharge of treated waste water.54 Thames Water received the largest fine: a record £20.3m in March 2017 after they were found guilty of dumping 1.4bn litres of raw sewage into the river Thames between 2012 and 2014.55 The Environment Agency have, however reported that since 1995, pollutant loads from water industry discharges have declined by up to 70%.56

20.In August 2017, the Guardian reported the nature of some of the agricultural water pollution offences that occurred between 2010 and 2016. Offences included pollution of waterways and land by slurry, the inappropriate burial of carcasses, and the emission of noxious fumes, the majority of which involved dairy farms, mainly in the south-west and Midlands. Some of the serious incidents had been linked to megafarms, housing hundreds of thousands of chickens or thousands of pigs.57

21.In June 2018, the Secretary of State wrote to the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee stating that it had become clear that it would “be very challenging for most member states to achieve good status for all waters”, a key target in the WFD, due to the “sheer pressure from human populations, industry and agriculture”. As a result, he said it was “likely that member states and the EU Commission will need to consider extending the WFD deadline in some way or revising water quality objectives looking beyond 2027”.58 The view that the UK would struggle to meet the 2027 target had been expressed in 2012, when the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Richard Benyon, told the House of Lords Sub-Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and the Environment that the disproportionate cost and technical feasibility of reaching 100% good status meant that “we would probably get to something like 75% by 2027”.59

How the UK Compares to the Rest of the EU on Water Quality

22.Looking at the EU as a whole, the European Environment Agency (EEA) reported that groundwaters generally had the best status, with 89 % achieving good quantitative status,60 and 79% good chemical status, with nitrates the main cause for EU ground water not reaching good chemical status.61 The map below indicates how the UK performs against other EU countries in terms of the chemical status of its groundwater:

Source: European Environment Agency, European Waters Assessment of Status and Pressures 2018, (2018), p 51.

This map indicates how the quantitative status of the UK’s groundwater compares with the rest of the EU:

Source: European Environment Agency, European Waters Assessment of Status and Pressures 2018, (2018), p 58.

23.In terms of surface water, around 40 % of EU surface waters (rivers, lakes and transitional and coastal waters) have good ecological status or potential, with 38 % having good chemical status.62 The map below indicates how the UK compares with other EU countries in terms of water bodies that have good ecological status/potential:

Source: European Environment Agency, European Waters Assessment of Status and Pressures 2018, (2018), p 26.

24.It is a cause for concern that 86% of English rivers did not reach good ecological status in 2016, which is lower than the EU average, and that the UK is also performing badly compared to many of its European neighbours in terms of the chemical status of its ground waters. It is particularly worrying that the UK may not hit the 2027 target set in the Water Framework Directive for all water bodies to have a good ecological status.

25.This is having a negative impact on our ecosystems and the organisms that live in them. We note that there were 314 serious pollution incidents in 2016 and that this level of incidents has persisted for nearly a decade, which suggests that more needs to be done to reduce pollution in both surface waters and groundwaters. The figures also show that the Government is rightly concentrating on agriculture and the water industry as the major polluters.

Drinking Water

26.The EU’s Drinking Water Directive (98/83/EC), working in conjunction with the WFD, seeks to protect human health from “adverse effects of any contamination of water intended for human consumption by ensuring that it is wholesome and clean”. An overview of the Directive and relevant transposing legislation is provided in Annex 2 of this Report.

27.Tap water supplied by water companies in England and Wales is regulated by the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) to ensure it meets the required drinking water quality standard.63 In Scotland, this is the responsibility of the Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland and in Northern Ireland, the Drinking Water Inspectorate based with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency64 In terms of drinking water in England the table below summarises provisions from both public and private sources:65

28.The Drinking Water Inspectorate reported that in 2017, 99.6% of publicly supplied water in England complied with the WFD; the level of compliance has remained largely unchanged since 2004.66 We are reassured that regulators are reporting high levels of drinking water quality. But as we note elsewhere in this report, the costs of delivering this in terms of mitigating nitrate pollution, especially in groundwater sources, are high. Such costs are ultimately passed on to the consumer.

Urban Waste Water

29.The Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (91/271/EEC) seeks to protect the water environment from the adverse effects of discharges of urban waste water and from certain industrial discharges, including sensitive areas and their catchments which might be vulnerable to eutrophication.67 Further details regarding the Directive and relevant transposing legislation can be found in Annex 2 of this Report.

30.In 2009, the European Commission began infringement proceedings against the UK for breaching the Urban Waste Water Directive, after complaints from the public. In 2014, the Commission referred the UK to the European Court of Justice (ECJ), for its continued failure to comply with the Directive.68 In May 2017, the ECJ ruled against the UK. The UK was not fined but will have to pay costs.69 This related to breaches in: the Gowerton and Llanelli agglomerations in Wales; Gibraltar, which has no urban wastewater treatment plant; Banchory and Stranraer in Scotland, and Ballycastle in Northern Ireland; and the Tiverton, Durham, Chester-le-Street, Islip, Broughton Astley, Chilton, Witham and Chelmsford agglomerations in England. The breaches included sewage spills in areas under various designations, including the Birds Directives with evidence that shellfish had been contaminated with E. coli bacteria. The UK was criticised for starting remedial work too late to ensure compliance and for not providing data in many of the areas to confirm compliance.70 Defra informed us that all the sites in England covered by the judgment were compliant by January 2016 and improvement works at the one site in breach in Northern Ireland had recently been completed. The Welsh Government plans to deliver compliance at the sites in Wales by 2020.71 HM Government of Gibraltar have informed us that they recently awarded a contract to construct the necessary treatment works and expects the works to be completed by the end of 2020.72 Cases have been brought against other EU countries for breaches of the Directive, including: Portugal; Greece; Belgium; Italy; Luxembourg; Spain. We are disappointed that the Government was slow in addressing UK breaches of the Urban Water Directive in 2009 which led the ECJ ruling against the UK 2017. We have seen similar problems elsewhere in relation to air quality and nitrogen dioxide emissions. The fact that the UK was slow to respond to these breaches even after the intervention of the European Commission and European Court of Justice does not inspire us with confidence about maintenance of water standards once the UK leaves their jurisdiction. This underlines why a powerful environmental watchdog will be needed after the UK leaves the EU and particularly in the event of leaving without a deal. This body will need to set, monitor and evaluate targets to reduce pollution incidents and improve water quality.

Bathing Water

31.The Bathing Water Directive (2006/7/EC) requires Member States to protect and monitor bathing water areas. Further detail regarding the Directive and transposing legislation is provided in Annex 2 of this Report. Oversight is provided by the Environment Agency.73

32.The Environment Agency found that 65% of UK bathing sites had an excellent status in 2016, 25% a good status and 6.5% had sufficient quality. This position has improved over time:74

33.However, the UK is well below the EU average of 85% of beaches achieving excellent status and ranking 24th out of 30 European countries (see the chart below):75

Proportion of Bathing Water Sites with Excellent Water Quality in European Countries

34.Though there has been has been an improvement in the quality of UK bathing waters over the past 25–30 years, the UK is still 7th from the bottom of the scale. The European Environment Agency notes that nitrate pollution from diffuse pollution is a major cause of bathing water not reaching excellent status and that steps taken to address this will have the added benefit of also addressing phosphate pollution. It is crucial that the Government continues to enforce the various initiatives to control nitrate pollution and improve water quality if our beaches are to move into the upper tier of EU bathing quality. The new system of farm payments, linking payments to provision of public goods should look at reducing nitrate pollution from agriculture as a key public good.

The UK’s Nitrate “Time Bomb”

35.We received evidence from the British Geological Survey (BGS) and heard from Dr Ward of BGS about the problems associated with what has become known as the “nitrate time bomb”. This is a phenomenon caused by historic high applications of artificial fertilisers that had not filtered through into groundwater aquifers because the geology in some parts of the UK, especially chalk and thick saturated zones, had slowed it down.76 Dr Ward warned that it might take 60 years for levels of nitrate to peak and that in the worst-case scenario it might take a century to peak.77 The Minister acknowledged this issue: “For years we are still going to be suffering the consequences of overuse of synthetic fertilisers”.78 The Environment Agency said that the Government could not tackle the nitrate that is already in the groundwater and could only stop additional nitrate reaching it.79

Performance on Reducing Nitrates

36.Defra submitted evidence on average nitrate levels for surface waters (i.e. rivers and lakes) and groundwaters 2012–2015, showing the percentage of water bodies with different concentrations of nitrate per litre of water, ranging from less than 2 mg to greater than 50 mg per litre.

37.This indicates that higher levels of nitrates occur in English surface waters, than in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, Defra told us that since the late 1990s nitrate levels had declined and that it expected this trend to continue due to regulatory measures, declining fertiliser use and reduced livestock numbers.80

38.Defra and the Minister accepted that the scale and extent of nitrate pollution was much higher for groundwater. In 2015, 37% of groundwater bodies in England were failing their objectives and 69% were at risk of failing mainly because of nitrate.81

39.The European Environment Agency (EEA) also submitted evidence to our inquiry concerning nitrate and phosphate concentrations in UK rivers:82

40.The EEA noted that within this overall UK data, there were some of the lowest and highest concentrations in Europe. The lowest concentrations were in Scotland and Northern Ireland and the highest in eastern England and the Thames Region.83 The European Commission published a review of the Nitrates Directive in 2018, which set out average nitrates concentrations in all surface waters (i.e. lakes and rivers) 2012–2015, which indicated that average nitrate levels in the UK were at the higher end of the EU spectrum:84

41.The Review also included average nitrate levels for ground waters:85

In terms of breaching the Nitrates Directive, on 7 December 2000 the European Court of Justice criticised the United Kingdom for failing to identify its nitrate-polluted waters and to designate nitrate vulnerable zones in accordance with the Directive.86 This centred on the UK not drawing up action plans for three Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) areas in Northern Ireland and for failing to designate a Scottish River.87 The Commission followed up with a Letter of Formal Notice,88 in October 2001 to remind the United Kingdom of its obligation to complete the identification of all its nitrate-polluted waters following on from the Court’s judgement.89 In 2017, the European Commission launched a Pilot Investigation on the UK’s Nitrate Action Plan, in which it questioned whether measures set out in UK legislation were sufficient to meet the objectives of the Directive. The UK Government provided information regarding the measures and drew attention to recent scientific evidence which investigated their efficiency. The Government is still engaging with the Commission on this issue.90

The Cost of Water Quality and Dealing with Nitrate pollution

42.Defra estimated in 2015 that in England, businesses, the third sector and public sector jointly spent about £5 billion a year to protect the water environment (to prevent deterioration) and protect public health and wellbeing. This included:

43.Professor Johnes, from Bristol University, suggested that the annual costs of fertiliser loss in UK lowland farming could be £10,000-£20,000 per km², while studies reported that the total loss across the EU from nitrogen pollution could be up to €18bn.92 We heard that water companies have had to invest significantly in facilities to ‘blend’ polluted water with water from a low nitrate source or in processing plants to remove nitrate.93 Anglian Water told us that they had invested £100m in equipment to deal with groundwater sources that had high nitrate levels.94 Wessex Water spent £12m to build a nitrate removal plant at Poole sewage treatment works in 2008, which costs nearly £1m a year to run, and £4m on a plant at Blandford.95 Treating water for nitrate pollution is also energy intensive.96 The water companies acknowledged that investment in such facilities bore a cost for their customers.97 Wessex Water stated that “this cost goes back to water company’s bills”.98

44.Though progress has been made in reducing nitrates in surface waters, levels are high in some areas, especially in parts of England, and we still lag behind a number of our European neighbours. We are particularly disturbed to hear of the high levels of nitrate pollution in some of our groundwater sources, which supply nearly a third of our drinking water, which might not peak for another 60 years. Water companies are having to invest substantial sums of money in nitrate removal and water blending plants, the costs of which are being passed on to customers through water bills.

Progress on reducing Phosphorous in Surface Waters

45.The Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive in 1991 set a maximum limit of 2mg of phosphorous per litre of water for larger water treatment works or those discharging into sensitive waters, while the Water Framework Directive in 2000, with its focus on continuous improvement and achieving ‘good’ status for all watercourses, has led to 0.5–1.0 mg/l limits being typically imposed by the Environment Agency.99 This has led to a significant drop in phosphorous levels in UK rivers:100

46.The reductions have been achieved through reduced use of detergents containing phosphates,101 the introduction of phosphorus reduction treatment at sewage treatment works and falling fertiliser use and livestock numbers.102 However, we heard that phosphorous was still the main challenge in terms of pollution in surface waters and rivers,103 and the main problem in Northern Ireland, in terms of eutrophication.104 Analysis suggests that further major reductions to achieve the WFD phosphorous standards for good ecological status will be challenging.105 This is because of the cost of chemical treatments to remove more phosphorous and unwanted by-products.106 However, a programme of trials of phosphorus-removing technologies is taking place, supervised by the Environment Agency and involving UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR). These trials are focusing on the use of filtration through reed beds, filtration using ferric salts and enhanced biological phosphorus removal using bacteria.107 Anglian Water is constructing a £500,000 wetland in Norfolk to remove further phosphates after filtering from its treatment works, which it is hoped will be an approach can be used elsewhere.108

47.Though significant progress has been made in reducing levels of phosphorous in rivers over the last 20 years, which we welcome, it remains the main cause of eutrophication and an obstacle to our surface waters achieving good ecological status. The Government should continue to invest in new technologies and natural infrastructure approaches that can reduce phosphorous levels further. This should include encouraging water companies and landowners to trial such measures and rolling them out if they are cost-effective.

River Basin Management Plans and Collaborative Catchments

48.The Water Framework Directive requires Member States to produce River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) for each river basin district lying within its territory. RBMPs set statutory objectives for water bodies and summarise the measures needed to achieve them. In England and Wales water bodies are grouped into 100 management catchments, which are in turn grouped into river basin districts.109 This collaborative approach delivers multiple benefits for partner organisations and the local community, reducing flood risk whilst also cleaning up pollution, protecting drinking water resources, improving biodiversity and improving health and recreation for local communities. It also allows partners to share the cost burden whilst meeting their own objectives.110 It is also a way of dealing with diffuse pollution which could not be traced to one source and for promoting a better understanding of the environment because it requires an integrated approach from all stakeholders to address the relevant pressures on a catchment.111

49.Objectives for river basins were first set out in RBMPs for the period 2009–2015.112 States must review and update them every six years as part of the river basin planning process. Defra updated RBMPs for England in 2016 for the period up until 2021 and included new ecological standards for rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters, which had been benchmarked with corresponding standards used by other European countries. Each RBMP also includes a summary of the measures needed for water dependent Natura 2000 sites and site improvement plans to capture any new measures required.113 This included improved biological standards for different water bodies and levels of pollutants in rivers (e.g. phosphorous) and groundwater sources, such as nitrates.114 However, the overall standard set in the WFD - all rivers to achieve good status by 2015 and 2027 by the latest, still drives overall water quality policy. In England, the updated RBMPs cover eight river basins, covering over 9,320 miles of our rivers and set out how a minimum of 680 (14%) of waters will improve over the next six years with around £3 billion investment.115 Funding for delivering catchment measures was made available under the Catchment Restoration Fund, which ran from 2011 to March 2015, which provided £24.5m of support for 42 projects that improved over 300 bodies of water.116

The Role of Water Companies in Water Catchment Management

50.Water companies play an important role in water catchment management and investment in improving water quality. For instance, in June 2018, Thames Water, Yorkshire Water and Anglian water signed a water catchment declaration which aims to reach and exceed current quality objectives for rivers, lakes and coastal and ground waters in terms of biodiversity and drinking water by working with farmers to make more efficient use of fertiliser and improving soil quality.117 The role of water companies in this area is also reflected in the regulatory framework. Ofwat’s five year cycle of price review (PR) and setting Asset Management Plans (AMPs) for water companies include a duty to meet environmental objectives alongside protecting customers and ensuring more efficient use of water resources.118 The package for 2015–2020 (PR14 or AMP6119) involves developing more than 100 catchment management schemes, including working with farmers and landowners to improve drainage and control pollution, and action to improve water quality at over 50 beaches.120 Water UK, the body which represents UK water companies, estimate that by 2020 water companies will have invested £25bn in environmental work since 1995.121 Ofwat is currently working on the price review for 2019 (PR19) and the associated AMP7, which will set wholesale price controls for water and sewerage companies for 2020 to 2025 alongside key environmental objectives.122 A key part of the agreements reached for the AMPs are the Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP) and the Water Industry Strategic Environmental Requirements (WISER). WINEP sets out: the actions that companies will need to complete to meet their environmental obligations; the drivers for investment for measures for protected areas; improvements to meet River Basin Management objectives and other local environmental priorities.123 WISER is a joint Environment Agency and Natural England strategic steer to water companies on environment issues, resilience and flood risk.124 It also includes statutory obligations and non-statutory requirements.

51.In June 2018, the Environment Agency published the latest WINEP which will see up to £5 billion of investment by water companies in the natural environment from 2020 to 2025, which will address some of the “biggest challenges facing the water environment, from the spread of invasive species and low flows to the effects of chemical and nutrient pollution”. The Government stated it would help it deliver its 25 Year Environment Plan and in exceptional circumstances would consider extending the 2020–2025 timeframe if measures facilitate long term sustainable outcomes and maximise environmental benefits.125 This came after the Environment Secretary stated in March 2018 that while some water companies deserved particular praise for their environmental leadership, others had paid almost all of their profits to shareholders, “at the expense of consumers and the environment”.126

52.Water companies told us that they were focusing on catchment management as contained within the RBMPs and engaging with the agricultural community, the Environment Agency, Natural England and independent agricultural advisers. This was because working in collaboration they could support initiatives which could tackle nitrate pollution at source rather than dealing with it downstream by way of expensive nitrate removal and water blending plants.127 Anglian Water told us that this approach delivers cleaner water but also other wider benefits such as biodiversity, amenity and habitat.128 Wessex Water, Yorkshire Water Services, and Anglian Water told us they have been helping farmers fund measures such as using cover crops during the winter to retain nitrogen and protect soils and had their own teams of advisers to help farmers ensure that where possible they could make decisions that reduced or mitigated nitrate and other forms of pollution.129 The water companies told us that they saw funding for such measures and initiatives as means of “sharing the risk with farmers to explore different ways of managing land”.130 We were told that such funding was not a case of paying the polluter for doing things they should be doing anyway but more of “looking to … push them beyond best practice”.131 The water companies suggested that they would prefer a longer-term approach than the 5-year periods agreed between the Government and OFWAT because that would allow longer term investment in catchment strategies which could often take 20 years or so to deliver.132

53.The collaborative catchment approach was supported by other witnesses.133 Yorkshire Water said that catchment management at a local level was required to introduce measures that went beyond the measures stipulated in NVZs and make more progress on water quality.134 The Wildlife and Countryside link said that a partnership approach within a local river catchment was the best way of identifying and managing the various sources of nitrate pollution, and that the best partnerships were those driven by data, evidence and partnership and where there was a “common understanding of the issues within their catchment”.135 The Green Alliance thought the that the catchment approach provided more carrots to encourage farmers and others to go further, which was needed if good ecological standards were to be achieved.136 However, a number of witnesses commented that there was a need for better information, evidence and best practice sharing between partners in the catchments and improved engagement, especially with farmers, by the Environment Agency.137 The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds was sceptical of catchment management schemes because of their voluntary nature, which it thought undermined the polluter pays principle. It was particularly concerned that such schemes were not protecting water-dependent environmentally sensitive sites.138 Along with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, it thought that while schemes set a benchmark they had only delivered small improvements and not enough for specially protected areas.139

54.Collaboration between stakeholders involved in river basin catchment management makes sense as it seeks to stop nitrate and other pollution at source and acknowledges that responsibility for better water quality lies with multiple actors. A key part of this is investment from water companies and they have made a persuasive case for a longer-term approach to funding. We would, however, note the Secretary of State’s concern that water companies should invest more of their profits addressing environmental challenges, before passing their costs on to consumers.

55.We believe that the Government should consider whether a longer-term approach to river catchment planning and funding would deliver better environmental outcomes. Investment should be used to support farmers and other stakeholders who go beyond regulations and best practice, but it should not break the polluter pays principle. Such investment must ensure that environmentally sensitive sites are protected. We also recommend that the Environment Agency examines whether the sharing of evidence, data and best practice between stakeholders can be improved along with better engagement of farmers by the Agency.

Making More Progress on the Good Ecological Status of Water Bodies

56.Several academic witnesses said that if the ecological status of water bodies was to be improved then stricter nitrate standards would be required.140 Currently 86% of rivers do not meet a good ecological standard. While the standard for nitrate in drinking water is set at 50 mg/l, we were told that to achieve good ecological status other EU countries had set the level between 1.5 mg/l and 4 mg/l (e.g. the Netherlands). The Soil Association told us that if a higher standard of 2 mg/l was adopted, only 6% of water bodies would comply.141 Professor Johnes also told us that the UK was the only EU Member State to not have a nitrate threshold for freshwaters because it focuses only on phosphorous control.142

57.Witnesses also said that policies and regulations on pollutants and their sources needed to be joined up. This was because rivers and the organisms that live in them are exposed to multiple stressors, including nitrate but also phosphorous, other nutrients and air pollutants (e.g. ammonia and nitrogen oxides) which can be transported either in a wet (e.g. acid rain) or dry form and deposited in water bodies, raising acidity levels and affecting the delicate balance of ecosystems.143 Professor Jarvie, from the Centre of Ecology and Hydrology, told us that nitrogen and phosphorous pollution needed to be tackled together as they were intertwined; and to concentrate on just one or to deal with them separately could have unintended consequences.144 The Soil Association also recommended a holistic approach. It thought that the Government should take account of the climate change impact of the nitrogen cycle and pointed to the global warming potential of nitrous oxides, which is 298 times more powerful than CO₂ and remains in the atmosphere for 114 years. It also pointed to the climate change impact caused by the manufacture of nitrogen for artificial fertiliser.145 This was important because climate change could exacerbate the impact of pollutants (e.g. extreme temperatures or rainfall). The Wildlife and Countryside link told us that the “levels of nitrate pollution that would be required to give us pristine ecology” would “not allow us to have a modern farming industry”, so there was a need to target ecosystems and priority sites and be “realistic”.146 The challenge of ensuring a higher ecological standard of water was highlighted in September 2015, when the High Court granted WWF-UK, the Angling Trust and Fish Legal permission to bring a judicial review of the Environment Agency and Defra’s implementation of the Water Framework Directive. It focused on four protected Natura 2000 sites where it was claimed that agricultural pollution has been particularly harmful: Poole Harbour in Dorset, the river Eden in Cumbria, Marazion Marsh in Cornwall and the river Lugg in Herefordshire. Defra agreed that it would consider introducing mandatory water protection zones alongside voluntary measures aimed at reducing pollution.147

58.The Government has acknowledged the issue of water and air pollution. The Environment Agency agreed that trying to tackle standards for air, water and soil through separate instruments would “not get us to where we want to go” and supported “having a coherent set [of instruments] that takes soil, air and water into account”.148 The Minister also thought that there was an opportunity to look “holistically at how we manage all the pollutants in the water, and maybe consolidate some of these different instruments into one that is more effective and more consistent”.149 The Minister did not accept that there was a trade-off between a modern farming industry and good water quality.

59.To make progress on improving the ecological status of water, the Government will have to use higher standards than those used for drinking water. This should include setting stricter standards for nitrates in freshwaters, as is the case in other EU Member States. It will also need to take a holistic approach to different pollutants, their collective impact and their sources. The Government have produced two plans–the Clear Air Strategy and the New Farming Rules for Water, which seek to tackle the sources and causes of pollution whether it is water, air-or soil based. The Environment Agency and Minister accepted that a more holistic approach makes sense.

60.The Government should seek to ensure that various EU Directives and regulations are aligned and do not result in a siloed approach to individual pollutants but address them in their totality. The Government should also report on progress introducing mandatory water protection zones for vulnerable Natura 2000 sites, which it agreed to do in September 2015, and whether it is considering this approach more widely.


42 For further details regarding exemptions see: House of Commons Library, Water Framework Directive: achieving good status of water bodies, (2015), pp 14–15 and House of Commons Library. Water Quality, (July 2018), pp 7–8. Derogations include considering if achieving the deadline would be disproportionately expensive or if a natural event (e.g. extreme flooding) temporarily negated achieving it. However, specific conditions must be met for each derogation and no further deterioration can occur.

43 House of Commons Library, Water Quality, (July 2018), p 21.

44 As above.

45 Defra, Single Departmental Plan, (May 2018), para 2.2.

46 Environment Agency, State of the Environment Report: Water, Feb 2018.

47 Wildlife and Countryside Link NO30029 stated that 62% of the UK’s sensitive ecosystems suffer from high levels of nitrogen deposition, rising to 96% for England only which is not expected to significantly decrease until 2025.

48 HC Hansard, 11 July 2017, Written Question 4156.

49 Environment Agency, Pollution incidents 2015 evidence summary September 2016, (December 2017), p 5.

50 Environment Agency, Water and sewerage companies’ performance: 2017 summary, (July 2018), p 7.

51 As above.

52 BBC News Online, Major sewage pollution incidents increase, (July 2018). See also: Conor McClone, ‘Serious water pollution incidents ‘on the rise’ says EA’, ENDS Report, (July 2018): Gill Plimmer, Water companies warned on failure to reduce pollution incidents, Financial Times, (February 2018).

53 Environment Agency, Water and sewerage companies’ performance: 2017 summary, (July 2018), p 12.

54 Gill Plimmer, ‘Water industry taken to task on serious pollution incidents’, Financial Times, (July 2018).

55 See Environment Agency, Thames Water ordered to pay record £20 million for river pollution, (March 2017); Gill Plimmer, Thames Water fined record £20m for sewage dump, Financial Times, (March 2017).

56 Environment Agency, State of the Environment Report: Water, Feb 2018.

57 Andrew Wasley, Fiona Harvey and Madlen Davies, Serious farm pollution breaches rise in UK – and many go unprosecuted, Guardian, (August 2017).

58 Rachel Salvidge, ‘Gove: EU Water Quality Objectives ‘Could be Revised’’, ENDS Report, June 2018.

59 House of Lords European Union Select Committee, An Indispensable Resource: EU Freshwater Policy, (HL 296; May 2012), para 39.

60 Good ground quantitative status refers to available groundwater source not being exceeded by the long-term annual rate of abstraction and groundwater levels not: diminishing the ecological status of surface water linked with groundwater; causing significant damage to groundwater-dependent ecosystems; leading to saline or other intrusions.

61 Good groundwater chemical status refers to water that: shows no sign of saline intrusion; where concentrations of pollutants (e.g. nitrates) do not exceed those permitted by applicable groundwater quality standards or threshold values; where concentrations of pollutants do not result in a failure to achieve ecological or chemical status in associated surface waters not cause damage to associated dependent terrestrial ecosystems.

62 European Environment Agency, European waters Assessment of status and pressures 2018, (2018), p 6.

63 For further information on the role of the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), see: DWI, What we do, (accessed 12 June 2018).

64 See: Drinking Water Quality Regulator for Scotland (DWQR), What does the DWQR do, (accessed 12 June 2018). The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) is a unit within the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) responsible for regulating drinking water quality in Northern Ireland for both public and private supplies. See DWI, Duties of the Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI), (accessed 12 June 2018).

66 Same as above, p 7.

67 For more detailed information on sensitive areas see: Defra, Waste water treatment in the United Kingdom – 2012: Implementation of the European Union Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive – 91/271/EECA, (2012), pp 11–15. For an up-to-date list of UK sensitive areas see: Defra, Sensitive areas currently identified in the UK under the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive since 1994, (accessed 12 June 2018).

71 Defra and the Environment Agency NO30053.

72 HM Government of Gibraltar NO30052.

73 See: Environment Agency, Bathing Water Quality, (accessed 13 June 2018). For a list of designated bathing waters in England see: Defra, Designated bathing waters in England 2018, (May 2018).

74 Environment Agency, State of the Environment Report: Water, Feb 2018.

75 European Environment Agency, Good news for holiday makers: excellent water quality at vast majority of European bathing sites, (May 2018). The chart includes 28 EU Member states and Switzerland and Albania.

76 British Geological Survey NO30019. The BGS noted that In England and Wales it has been estimated that between 800 and 1700 kilotonnes (kt) of nitrate is stored in the unsaturated zone, which is between 2.5 and 6 times the estimates of nitrate stored in the saturated zone. See also: H. Headworth, ‘Contamination of Groundwaters from farming activities’ in J.G. Jones (ed.), Agriculture and the Environment, (1993). See also Wessex Water NO30008.

77 Dr Robert Ward Q3-Q10 and Q15. See also British Geological Survey NO30019.

78 George Eustice MP Q205.

79 Helen Wakeham Q210–211.

80 Defra NO30049

81 As above. See also: George Eustice MP Q205 and Helen Wakeham Q210–211.

82 NO30050, European Environment Agency.

83 European Environment Agency NO30050. See also Wildlife and Countryside Link NO30029.

85 As above, p 6.

88 A letter of Formal Notice is the first step in the EU’s infringement procedure. It requests further information from the country concerned, which must send a detailed reply within a specified period, usually 2 months. The second step is a Reasoned Opinion: a formal request to comply with EU law. It explains why the Commission considers that the country is breaching EU law. It also requests that the country inform the Commission of the measures taken, within a specified period, usually 2 months. The third step is referral of the matter to the Court of Justice. Most cases are settled before being referred to the court. If an EU country fails to communicate measures that implement the provisions of a directive in time, the Commission may ask the court to impose penalties. If the court finds that a country has breached EU law, the national authorities must take action to comply with the Court judgment. See: European Commission, Infringement procedure, (accessed 21 August 2018).

90 House of Lords European Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, Letter from Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the Chair of the Committee, (July 2018).

92 Professor Johnes NO30024. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (NO30033) thought that the overall cost of lost nitrogen fertiliser across the EU was in the region of €14bn a year.

93 Mark Morton (Yorkshire Water Services Ltd) Q92.

94 Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle Q96.

95 Wessex Water NO30007.

96 Yorkshire Water Services Ltd NO30021.

97 Mark Morton (Yorkshire Water Services) Q109 and Q119; Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle Q111 to Q113 and Q126. Both noted that investment in collaborative catchment management would be cheaper than expensive extraction or blending plants , which would mean cheaper bills for customers.

98 Wessex Water NO30007.

99 Waste Water and Treatment, Phosphorus removal: How low can you go?, (December 2016).

100 Environment Agency, The State of the Environment: Water Quality, (February 2018), p 5

101 This was achieved by several EU regulations and transposed by UK secondary legislation. See: Health and Safety Executive, Detergents, (accessed 21 July 2018).

103 George Eustice MP Q282. See also: Environment Agency, The State of the Environment: Water Quality, (February 2018), p 5.

104 Aileen Lawson (Ulster Farmers Union) Q135; Northern Ireland Freshwater Taskforce NO30039.

106 One of the main chemicals that can be used to achieve higher reductions is ferric sulphate which is expensive but also can lead to unwanted elevated iron levels in water. See: Waste Water and Treatment, Phosphorus removal: How low can you go?, (December 2016).

107 As above.

108 Rachel Salvidge, ‘Anglian Water £500,00 wetland treatment facility’, ENDS Report, (July 2017).

109 The River Basin Districts for England include: Anglian; Humber; Northumbria; North West; Severn (cross-border with Wales); South East; South West; and Thames. In Wales they include the Dee and Western Wales river basin districts. Scotland includes the Scotland river basin district and the Solway Tweed river basin district which is jointly managed by the Environment Agency and SEPA. Northern Ireland includes: North Eastern (wholly in NI), North Western and Neagh Bann (cross-border with the Republic of Ireland) and Shannon (cross-border with the Republic of Ireland (RoI) but almost entirely within RoI and therefore managed by authorities in RoI).

110 See: Catchment Based Approach (CABA), Catchment Planning, (accessed July 2018).

111 House of Commons Library, Water Framework Directive: achieving Good Status of Water Bodies, (November 2015), pp 21–22.

112 These initial plans can be found on the Defra website.

113 House of Commons Library, Water Quality, (July 2018), p 20. The site improvement plans for each RBMP can be found at: Natural England, Site Improvement Plans by region, (accessed 31 July 2018).

115 The plans cover the Anglian, Humber, Northumbria, North West, Severn, South East, South West and Thames river basin districts. The plans can be found on the Defra website. Natural Resources Wales (NRW) manage the Western Wales RBD. NRW and the Environment Agency jointly manage the Dee and Severn RBDs. See the RBMPs for Western Wales and Dee on the NRW website. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and the Environment Agency jointly manage the Solway Tweed RBD. See the Solway Tweed RBMP on the SEPA website.

116 House of Commons Library, Water Quality, (2018), p 26. The projects were aimed at not-for-profit community groups and charities to restore natural features in and around watercourses; reduce the impact of man-made structures on wildlife in watercourses; and reduce the impact of diffuse pollution from rural and urban land use.

117 Cambridge University Institute for Sustainability Leadership, Catchment management: the declaration, (June 2018).

118 Ofwat, Setting price controls for 2015–20: Overview, (December 2014), p 6.

119 AMP6 is the sixth Asset Management Plan since the water industry was privatised.

120 As above, p 7.

122 Ofwat, Price reviews, (accessed 23 July 2018).

123 Environment Agency, Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP), (September 2017).

124 Expectations to improve the environment include: water body status; bathing waters; shellfish waters; biodiversity and ecosystems; sustainable fisheries; invasive non-native species (INNS); urban waste water; drinking water protected areas (DrWPA); chemicals. It also includes expectations on climate change and water resilience. See Environment Agency and Natural England, Water industry strategic environmental requirements (WISER), (2017).

125 Defra and Environment Agency, £5 billion investment by water companies to benefit the natural environment, (15 June 2018). The investment will include protecting and improving at least 6000km of waters, 24 Bathing Waters, 10 Shellfish sites, 800 hectares of protected nature conservation sites and enhancing nearly 900km of river and 4276 hectares through wider biodiversity improvements.

127 Paul Stanfield (Wessex Water) Q99 and Q112 and Mark Morton (Yorkshire Water Services Ltd) Q101. This approach is also being used to trap phosphorous and ammonia. For instance, Anglian water is investing £500,000 in a wetland in Norfolk remove these pollutants to work alongside its treatment plant and Severn Trent, Wessex Water and Scottish Water either had or were considering similar investments. See: Rachel Salvidge, Anglian Water plans £500,000 wetland facility, ENDS Report, (July 2017).

128 Lucinda Gilfoyle (Anglian Water) Q113

129 Paul Stanfield (Wessex Water) Q99; Mark Morton (Yorkshire Water Services Ltd) Q101; Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle (Anglian Water) Q104.

130 Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle (Anglian Water) Q104.

131 Paul Stanfield (Wessex Water) Q99

132 Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle (Anglian Water) Q114; Paul Stanfield (Wessex Water) Q115-Q116; Mark Morton (Yorkshire Water Services Ltd) Q121; Anglian Water NO30022.

133 Aileen Lawson (Ulster Farmers’ Union) Q179; Northern Ireland Freshwater Taskforce NO30039.

134 Yorkshire Water Services Ltd NO30021.

135 David Johnson (Wildlife and Countryside link) Q51 and Q53.

136 Will Andrews Tipper (Green Alliance) Q61–62.

137 Mark Morton (Yorkshire Water Services Ltd) Q119; David Johnson (Wildlife and Countryside link) Q63; Will Andrews Tipper (Green Alliance) Q63; Fraser McAuley (Country Land and Business Association) Q142-Q143.

138 RSPB NO30037. It stated that such sites included Natura 2000 sites, Special Areas for Conservation (SACs) and Special Protected Areas (SPAs). It said that 57 such sites were failing due to agricultural pollution and that it had not seen evidence that the Government had plans in place to address them.

139 Centre for Ecology and Hydrology NO30033. The Centre stated in its evidence that NVZs for instance had only delivered about a 5% reduction in nitrate concentrations.

140 Professor Jarvie Q12; Professor Johnes Q13; Will Andrews Tipper (Green Alliance) Q56; Centre for Ecology and Hydrology NO30033.

141 Helen Browning Q136.

142 Professor Johnes NO30024.

143 Professor Johnes Q19 and Q34. See also Centre for Ecology and Hydrology NO30033. For an overview of the atmospheric deposition of pollutants on water bodies see: US Environmental Protection Agency, Air Pollution and Water Quality, (accessed 7 August 2018).

144 Professor Jarvie Q19. See also: Centre for Ecology and Hydrology NO30033; RSPB NO30033.

145 Helen Browning suggested that if organic fertiliser was used from now until 2030, it could take between 23 and 65% of agricultural GHGs out of the system (Q139–140).

146 David Johnson (Wildlife and Countryside link) Q80–81.

147 House of Commons Library, Water Quality, (July 2018), pp 27–28.

148 Helen Wakeham Q283.

149 George Eustice MP Q305.




Published: 22 November 2018