Huge fall in inspections meant to prevent illegal use of English water

Water abstraction site on the river Waveney, UK

Graham Turner/Alamy

UK government inspections designed to prevent the illegal extraction of water from natural sources in England have almost halved since their peak in 2015/2016, New Scientist can reveal, in part due to a shift to “office-based” checks because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Water firms use natural sources such as rivers and ground water to supply the general public, while farmers and other businesses such as golf clubs can also extract water directly for irrigation. This use of water, also known as abstraction, can harm the environment, for instance by putting fish at risk by reducing river flow, says James Overington at Wildfish, an environmental charity.

Because of this, any business in England that extracts more than 20,000 litres of water a day from a water body requires a licence from the Environment Agency (EA). The latest available figures suggest that there are over 18,000 abstraction licences in England as of 2018.

Despite licensing, around 15 per cent of all rivers and 27 per cent of all groundwater sources in England are considered to be over-abstracted, according to the EA.

Tackling this requires a rigorous inspection system, says Overington. But a freedom of information request by New Scientist has revealed that the current inspection regime is anything but rigorous.

According to figures for the past decade released by the EA, the number of onsite abstraction inspections it conducts has fallen from a high of 4904 in the 2015/2016 financial year to less than half that in 2022/2023, with just 2303 inspections.

Licence holders are required to report the amount of water they take from a source, with onsite inspections verifying those figures. A worker at the EA, who wishes to remain anonymous, says the cutbacks in onsite inspections pose a significant risk to England’s water bodies.

“Due to a reduction in resources and a shift in priorities, the EA has significantly scaled back its inspection programme of water abstractions,” they say. “This has the potential for companies to exceed their licensed quantities without proper scrutiny.

“That’s why onsite inspections are so crucial. This behaviour is often going unpunished and can cause significant damage to our precious water habitats.”

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdowns are partly responsible for the fall in inspections, with just 431 onsite visits in 2020/2021. During this time, the EA began using “office-based” inspections to monitor abstraction levels, conducting 1290 during 2020/21. The EA says that these inspections are only used for sites with a low environmental risk and for licence holders with a good history of compliance.

“I’m very concerned by figures that show a decline in inspections and a tendency to replace in-the-field inspections with desk work,” says Charles Rangeley-Wilson, who is the chair of England’s chalk stream restoration group. “If anything has shown the need for presence in the field, it has surely been the sewage crisis, which has reached crisis point partly for lack of inspections.”

“Our environment deserves to be properly protected and the EA must be given and must deploy the resources it needs to do that effectively and fairly,” he says.

“Inspections are not our only way of assessing the impact of abstraction on the environment: we have a network of river gauging, groundwater level and ecological monitoring that we use to monitor the impact of abstraction on catchments,” says an EA spokesperson.

“We take a risk-based approach, prioritising this work during drought and prolonged dry weather when illegal abstraction will have the greatest impact on the environment. More widely, we are strengthening the way we regulate, embedding a new approach to drive better performance from the water industry, with additional specialist officers and new data tools to provide better intelligence.”

Topics:

  • rivers/
  • Save Britain’s Rivers

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