The news has been awash over recent weeks with tales of the transformation of our rivers from horribly polluted sewers to clean beauties sparklingly full of life like otters and salmon.
There is of course progress to celebrate. No one is going to argue that the Thames, Wear or many other rivers that have been blighted by industry and sewage have not improved over the past twenty years. But to suggest a selection of the "10 most improved rivers" in England and Wales are indicative of the picture of how healthy our waterways are is stretching a point.
Take for instance the new water quality measures introduced under the Water Framework Directive which look at the ecology of the river and not just chemical pollution. These tell us that just 26% of our rivers and waterways are of ‘Good Status’. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency's River Habitat Survey concludes there has been no significant progress in the last decade on tackling problems from invasive species, channel reinforcement or sedimentation.
The Agency’s own data also show that salmon stocks continue to be seriously depleted with the oft-repeated claims of salmon in the Thames little more than an urban myth as, since 2005, no hatchery reared salmon have been caught in the Thames despite an intensive and expensive hatchery stocking programme.
At least 30 per cent of waterbodies are failing to achieve good status because of diffuse pollution yet Government seem unwilling to use regulatory approaches, preferring instead to put their faith in voluntary measures alone.
So why are Government bodies like the Environment Agency promoting a public this line that all is good in the water environment? It’s certainly not very helpful to all those fighting for the funding and action needed to improve our rivers. Perhaps it’s to disguise the lack of ambition in plans for the future of our rivers which will see little progress in the state of our rivers until 2027 or later.
A little more honesty from all quarters about the real state of the freshwater environment is urgently needed to help build the public consensus that’s essential if our rivers are to receive the investment and action that they need.