“The thing about water is that it gets everywhere” – a deceptively simple but powerful insight that I once heard from a leading environmental campaigner.
And it’s true: water affects everything and everyone. It keeps us alive; drives the economy (industry, energy and farming depend on it); sustains plants, wildlife and the natural world; keeps our lakes and rivers healthy; and enhances the beauty of the world around us. Water pollution and drought threaten all these things. So having good quality water in the quantities we need is essential for all of us.
Over the last 20 years there’s been huge progress in enhancing the water environment:
- Water courses that were once so badly polluted they were biologically dead are now coming back to life, with salmon and trout returning to many rivers.
- Our coasts have the cleanest bathing waters since records began.
- Businesses and the public are using water much more efficiently.
- Serious pollution incidents, such as the discharge of untreated sewage into watercourses, are steadily declining.
- Treated wastewater going back into rivers and streams is much cleaner now (40% less phosphates, 70% less ammonia).
- Despite growing demand and several periods of drought, consumers across the country have with very few exceptions enjoyed uninterrupted supplies of water.
These things didn’t happen by accident. They happened because of the hard work and dedication of many individuals and organisations; government, regulators, businesses, national campaign groups and local partners.
In particular, they happened because of the work of the water companies, whose huge contribution we should acknowledge.
But there here is much still to do: we want to improve rivers, water quality and ecology further to meet Water Framework Directive targets and there are still over 50 serious pollution incidents a year for which water companies are responsible.
The water industry faces some significant challenges; from extreme weather to ageing infrastructure and companies will need to consider new ways of tackling these problems.
As water companies develop their business plans ready for Ofwat’s next review of prices in PR19, we (the Environment Agency and Natural England) are advising water companies on the action we would like to see from the water companies over the next several years to tackle these challenges, through the investments they make, the decisions they take, and the daily operations they run. We want them in particular to do three things: ensure their own environmental performance is excellent; help protect and enhance the wider environment; and further improve our resilience to drought and flooding.
As we reach this critical moment in water industry planning, we, along with other regulators expect water companies to be striving for high quality, innovative and ambitious business plans. Water companies can demonstrate this by:
- Valuing the environment, including both the natural assets they rely upon and in terms of the wider socio-economic value of the water environment
- Embracing innovation, including novel approaches to regulation and engaging with the farming community on catchment work
- Building stronger catchment and flood partnerships to maximise and integrate biodiversity and other environmental enhancements and public benefits.
We owe the water companies some commitments in return. Mine are that the Environment Agency will seek to work in partnership with them to achieve these goals; that we will consult them on decisions that affect them; and that in all we do we will seek not only to protect and enhance the environment but also to support the sustainable businesses, growth and development we all need to build a cleaner, greener and more prosperous country.
Our aim is a water industry that works for everyone, for people and the environment, for this generation and the next.