In his final speech on water, Sir James Bevan reflects on the debate around water quality over his seven years as Chief Executive.

Achieving clean and plentiful water is “easy to say but hard to do”, Sir James Bevan said in a speech, entitled ‘Reflections on water: the good, the bad and the future’.

He reiterated that just because it is hard it does not mean that we can’t get there, with success requiring everyone to play a part.

It was Sir James’ final speech on the water environment as Environment Agency Chief Executive, a role he has held for seven years. He will be stepping down as Chief Executive at the end of March.

Sir James highlighted the facts behind improvements in water quality over the last few decades, including:

  • Sewage treatment works now discharge 67% less phosphorus and 79% less ammonia into rivers.
  • An increase in the number of salmon and macroinvertebrates (such as snails, worms and insects) in rivers, an indicator of improving river health. Otters have also returned to every English county.
  • 72% of beaches and inland bathing waters met the “Excellent” standard in 2022, the highest since new stringent standards were introduced in 2015. The number of bathing waters classified as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ has also increased to 92.8%. In the early 1990s, just 28% of bathing waters met the highest standards in force at that time.

Sir James clearly sets out how and why the quality of our waters has flatlined, with industrial and agricultural pollution from sewage spills and leaky slurry tanks, climate change, and growing human populations among the biggest challenges.

Sir James said: In tackling the problem, we need to start by recognising another deceptively simple truth, which is that the people responsible for the pollution in our rivers are the people who pollute them. So the first thing we need is for the main polluters – farmers and water companies – to clean up their acts.

Regulators play a critical role and Sir James has welcomed the government’s recent increase in powers, resourcing and funding for the Environment Agency.

Concluding his speech, Sir James said:

The most important thing about water is that it gets everywhere. Let’s treasure it, look after it, protect it and enhance it.

The Environment Agency is committed to doing so, because if we really are going to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it – an aspiration we all share – then the single most important thing we can do over the coming years is to ensure that we do have clean and plentiful water.

For the speech in full: Reflections on water: the good, the bad and the future

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