The state of England’s rivers and lakes has become a major public concern. With only 14% of the country’s rivers currently meeting the standards for good ecological health as outlined by the Water Framework Directive, there is clearly a pressing need for action. 

To inform future actions to improve our freshwaters, Defra enlisted the help of the British Ecological Society (BES). The Society gathered evidence and views from over 40 experts, including scientists from UKCEH and based on these, has produced a comprehensive report setting out priorities for restoring England’s polluted freshwaters.

The Environment Act (2021) sets out much-needed targets for both water quality and biodiversity, but the road to achieving these goals is complex. Current water targets do not provide flexibility for emerging threats such as climate change and novel chemical pollution. The report, entitled Delivering Biodiversity: Priority Actions for Fresh Water, sets out how Environment Act targets deliver for biodiversity in fresh water and what priority actions are required to achieve the targets by 2030. 

Human activities, ranging from urbanisation to agricultural practices, significantly impact the health of rivers and lakes. Certain regions, particularly those downstream of urban and agricultural areas, bear the brunt of pollution from storm overflow discharges and nitrogen runoff. Fluctuating weather patterns and river flows also affect the state of rivers at different times. 

Recent research by UKCEH reveals there have been increases in the diversity of freshwater invertebrates across England over the past 30 years, though the rate of improvement began to slow for some species from 2003.

The new BES report identifies the following priority actions:

  1. Incentivising farmers to adopt practices that reduce agricultural pollution.
  2. Implementing stricter regulations to manage sewage overflows.
  3. Enhancing connectivity within waterways to facilitate the movement of aquatic species.
  4. Establishing more widespread and comprehensive monitoring of fresh waters.
  5. Updating aquatic biodiversity indicators, since several indicators are required to accurately monitor progress towards Defra’s biodiversity targets. 

Dr Stephen Thackeray, UKCEH freshwater ecologist, comments, “Our precious freshwater ecosystems are home to a huge diversity of species and are always changing. They are very sensitive to pressures like pollution and climate change, so it is essential to invest in monitoring these habitats to gather robust evidence of change. Only then can we detect deterioration and track any improvements that arise through our actions.”

The report Delivering Biodiversity: Priority Actions for Fresh Water is available on the BES website.