The issue – Why is this relevant to The Rivers Trust?

Water and sewage utilities are the single largest players in the UK water sector. They have some of the largest impacts on the quantity and quality of water in rivers through the abstraction and discharge of treated and untreated wastewater. They control important engineered infrastructure impacting rivers, and (almost) every household and business are connected to them as paying customers for water supply and/or sewage.

Water utilities are invested in the broader health of catchments and consequent impacts on rivers. There are many schemes through which water companies are trying to reduce nutrient pollution from other sectors, particularly agriculture. They have the single largest spend on the water environment through the Water Industry Natural Environment Programme (WINEP approx. £1 bill p.a.) in England and are linked to local authorities and other urban stakeholders through their Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans.

Why is working with Water Companies contentious?

According to the Environment Agency, up to 53% of rivers in England are not achieving good ecological status because of the activities of water companies (43% due to treated effluent discharge, 12% due to storm overflows, 7% due to groundwater abstraction and 4% due to surface water abstraction). The operations of water and sewage companies have negative impacts on rivers, and they are rightly criticised for this.

The government’s Environmental Audit Committee report recommended that much stronger and more effective regulation of water companies is needed, including potential reforms to how they declare profits and financially reward performance. The current poor state of our rivers is in part due to poor operational management and underinvestment in infrastructure by water companies. This is in breach of their legal and social licence to operate. Their environmental performance varies substantially in terms of pollution incidents and delivery on the WINEP.

The Rivers Trust aims to improve transparency in the sector, and we have made data on sewage pollution by water companies publicly accessible through our sewage map. We work hard with other E-NGOs and parliamentarians to end sewage pollution. Our role in holding water companies to account and sharing data and evidence on their impacts on the water environment is important in strengthening good governance in the water sector. We speak up for healthier rivers and safeguard that independence.

What is the legal context?

Water companies in England are private corporate (pseudo-) monopolies regulated by Defra, the Environment Agency, and OfWat. They are regulated by a suite of laws including the Water Resources Act, Water Industries Act, Water Act, and the Environment Act. Broadly, these require water companies to provide a public service of water supply and wastewater treatment; to invest in the infrastructure they own, mitigate pollution and negative impacts on the water environment; and to deliver fair value for money to customers.

The approach to regulating water companies in England has recently come under criticism and the new formed Office of Environmental Protection has launched an inquiry into whether the responsible authorities have failed to comply with their legal responsibilities, particularly with respect to water companies discharging untreated sewage into rivers and water ways.

What is our position?

Given the scale of operation and impact of water companies on rivers, The Rivers Trust wants to work with them at a strategic level to accelerate the recovery of our rivers. Any system for solving the complex problems facing our rivers will have to involve water companies as part of the solution.

The Rivers Trust movement works with local communities and Nature Based Solutions to improve the state of our rivers and resilience in catchments. We are a valuable partner for water companies in planning and delivering community and nature-based improvements to rivers and their catchment areas. But our role in holding water companies to account and building a more transparent sector that the public understands, is core to our charitable objectives. We will not compromise that role.

The Rivers Trust will partner with water companies in order to achieve strategic objectives and systemic change that will improve the state of our rivers for the long term. Many of our member Trusts deliver implementation projects (such as farm advice and river restoration) and partnership projects when water companies are one of the funders.

What is our approach to working with Water companies?

The Rivers Trust is entering into partnership agreements with water companies in order to accelerate the recovery of our rivers. These agreements usually include member Rivers Trusts and demonstrate new approaches to rebuilding nature and working with catchment partnerships.

We are focussing on strategic work which will result in step changes in how our catchments are managed and improve the health of rivers. This includes:

  • Establishing Nature Based Solutions at scale (sustainable drainage, river buffers, natural flood management, etc.), and ensuring they are well built, equitably financed, well-regulated, and delivering benefits.
  • Including citizen scientists in building a better understanding of catchment health.
  • Building more resilient catchment governance and integrating planning for floods and droughts.
  • Restoring our flagship chalk streams.

In the course of this work, we will always speak up against pollution and poor management, and champion better access to data and evidence on the state of our rivers. We safeguard our independence, for instance, with contract clauses that uphold our right to criticise water company partners publicly.

We will ensure that we approve all joint communications about our work to ensure that the public is given a truthful assessment of what is achieved. We will always be transparent and clarify where we are working in partnership with water companies, and where we are working independently.

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