Ouse Washes RSPB reserve, general landscape, panoramic view

The condition of our rivers and wetlands

There have been improvements in the quality of many habitats recently, but the situation for wildlife remains serious and many species are threatened.

The condition of our rivers and wetlands

There have been some true success stories of restoring and creating wetlands, improving water quality, and reducing organic pollutants and dangerous substances in rivers, lakes and bathing waters.

However, the wildlife that relies on water and wetlands remains critically threatened by drainage, abstraction and pollution.

How clean are our rivers?

For decades, water quality has been assessed by the presence of a limited number of chemicals and the bugs found in rivers. This approach, known as the General Quality Assessment (GQA) has shown improvements in water quality in response to better levels of sewage treatment. 

More than 70 per cent of rivers in England and Wales are assessed as 'good' or 'fair'. However, the GQA is insensitive to many of the problems affecting river ecology. 

Under the European Water Framework Directive, a new system has been introduced which assesses a broader range of pollutants and biology, including fish and aquatic plants. This sets a new standard - 'Good Ecological Status' (GES) - for healthy populations of fish and other species living in our waters.

This new approach has produced a more accurate picture of the state of our water environment.

It has shown that our waters, despite previous investment, are still very poor in terms of the life they contain, with just 27 per cent in England and Wales meeting Good Ecological Status.

In Scotland, the picture is slightly better with 65 per cent of all water bodies currently meeting Good Ecological Status (GES).

However, we must take action to enable all of Scotland's waters to reach GES, and to ensure that the quality of rivers, lochs and coastal waters does not deteriorate in future. 

How healthy are our wetlands?

The loss of wetland habitats has significantly reduced in recent decades largely because of better legal protection and the cutting of wasteful subsidies which supported the expansion of land drainage.

Although less is known about the health of wetlands than rivers, the indicators we do have paint a worrying picture. For example:

  • The breeding birds of wet meadows survey showed declines of 47 per cent in lapwings, 31 per cent in curlews, 40 per cent in redshanks and 65 per cent in snipe since 1982.
  • Water vole populations are in crisis because of habitat destruction and predation pressures.
  • Bat species, including the greater horseshoe bat and the pipistrelle, have suffered declines due in part to the loss and poor management of wetlands.
  • 85 per cent of lowland rivers have been physically altered, often by disconnecting them from their floodplains, drying out precious wetland habitats in the process.

In England the condition of open water Sites of Special Scientific Interest, including some of our most important rivers, has not improved.

  • Species dependent on clean water, such as the freshwater pearl mussel, many specialist water beetles and plants such as water crowfoot, are struggling to survive.
  • At least 50 per cent of ponds in the wider countryside are highly degraded, with widespread evidence of enrichment and other diffuse pollution impacts.

Troubled Waters

Mudflats of the River Thames. Rainham Marshes RSPB Reserve

Troubled Waters is a project delivered in partnership with the RSPB, the National Trust, the Wildlife Trusts, the Rivers Trust, Wales Environment Link and Afonydd Cymru. This report exposes the major underlying issues impacting our water quality and what we need to do to improve water for both people and nature.

Read the report arrow-down-simple-blue arrow-down-simple-blue