I was delighted to organise and chair a half day webinar for the Institute of Water on 25 January, where we discussed: “The River Water Quality Challenge: Regulation & Expectations, Solutions & Partnerships”. We had some excellent presentations, perspectives, and discussion.
River water quality has been repeatedly in the headlines over the past year & the topic has caught the attention of the public. In January 2021 the Storm Overflows Taskforce – comprising Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water (CCW), Blueprint for Water (via Wildlife and Countryside Link), and Water UK, and sponsored by Rebecca Pow (Minister for Nature Recovery and the Domestic Environment) agreed a long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows.
There has been campaign work by The Rivers Trust, Surfers Against Sewage, and Feargal Sharkey, amongst others. In September 2021 Water UK, released its "21st Century Rivers: From Recovery to Renewal" report & most recently, in November, the Environment Act 2021 came into force. With such a fast moving & emotive topic, we felt that it was an appropriate time to host a balanced discussion on the subject, covering a wide range of viewpoints.
The webinar combined presentations and panel discussions addressing the challenges that we face in tackling river water quality, considering CSOs, farming run-off, climate change, human behaviour & population growth. We discussed perspectives & expectations from the regulator, from landowners & from the public and NGOs. Then we moved on to the role of the water utilities, the farming sector & landowners in providing solutions. I hope that we did some myth busting for both public & water stakeholder audiences and we certainly identified opportunities for partnership in tackling the river water quality challenge and, hence delivering solutions.
Many thanks to our speakers: Helen Wakeham from the Environment Agency, Christine Colvin from The Rivers Trust, Johnny Palmer from the Warleigh Weir Project, Paul Cottington from the National Farmers' Union, Matt Wheeldon from Wessex Water, and Mark Worsfold from South West Water. Thanks also to the engaged audience of just over 100, who asked some great questions. As Christine Colvin said in her talk: "The Commons Environmental Audit Committee report on Water Quality in Rivers really is a watershed moment".
Dr Mark Fletcher’s (Global Water Lead, Arup) call to arms in discussion with Lila Thompson at British Water a couple of weeks ago makes the point very nicely:
I hope that all parties can work together to tackle Climate Change and Pollution with more ‘common purpose’. Expending energy blaming each other over the 35 years of my career has not worked. The water industry needs to develop a common agenda that the regulators, water companies and the supply chain can get behind. Let’s build on the positives and deliver outcomes for society and the environment that we can all be proud of.
I would add to this that we also need the public to get behind this common purpose once it is developed.
The more I think about the river water quality challenge, the clearer it becomes that separation, elimination and treatment at source, coupled with circular economy and nature based solutions, all facilitated by digital transformation, transparency, and multi-stakeholder collaboration, are the way forward.
So lots of work to do, but also a unique opportunity to make it happen.