The UK has long been defined by its relationship with water, but this is changing. In every region watercourses face multiple stresses. In England only 14% of rivers are classified as having good ecological status. Our waterways are our national treasure and we must protect them.

Whether it is agricultural pollution, sewage discharged by water companies, increased flooding or drought. These pressures had seemed set to continue under the previous Prime Minister Liz Truss, with the mantra of deregulation and mass removal of EU environmental legislation that had been enshrined in UK law following Brexit in an attempt to kickstart economic growth. Much of this was included in the highly controversial and strongly opposed retained EU law (revocation and reform) Bill. Indeed, the regulations that are sought to be repealed under this bill are focused more heavily on the environment than perhaps any other area. In the September 2022 bill presented to Parliament, 570 environmental laws covering water quality, sewage, pollution and the use of pesticides were set to be removed or rewritten. The uncertainty around how these laws will be re-written, or indeed whether they will be replaced at all, has caused fear of a massive reduction in the legal protection of our rivers amongst conservation groups.

However, her recently appointed successor, Rishi Sunak, has yet to make fully clear what his approach to the environment will be, but it seems likely to be somewhat different to that of his predecessor. Indeed, his declarations of intent to implement the original 2019 conservative manifesto appears to be a return to the previous conservative viewpoint under Boris Johnson which had far less of an aggressive deregulation agenda. This may demonstrate a more proactive approach towards building the UK’s green credentials. None the less, significant uncertainty remains as to when long term stability may return to the UK government approach to environmental policy, and problems linger on.

In particular, the government under Rishi Sunak appears to be continuing with many parts of the retained EU law (revocation and reform) Bill, presenting its progress as part of making Brexit work for driving growth in Britain. However, given the seemingly ubiquitous opposition and the impending 2025 general election, with a strong possibility of a Labour government coming to power, the chances of this Bill succeeding appear slim.

Resilient waterways are key if the UK aims to adapt to the impacts of climate change, but for this to become a reality, waterways need protection. Considered thought needs to be given to managing these complex systems, and the political instability of the past 5 years has only added to challenges faced in this area. This shows no signs yet of abating, with the possibility of the Office for Environmental Protection launching a formal investigation – and potentially even legal action – against the government following DEFRA delaying the release of new Environmental targets in late October.

So given all this uncertainty in the political sphere, what are the problems specifically relating to Britain’s waterways? And how can we begin to sort them?

Strength in Complexity

The healthier and more complex an ecosystem is, the more resilient it is to change. This is because aquatic ecosystems exhibit bi-stable state behaviour. This means that they tend to exist in either a state of high quality water supported by a biodiverse ecosystem, or a state of low quality water that is maintained by an unbalanced low biodiversity ecosystem dominated by few species. In addition, aquatic ecosystems lag behind water quality changes when shifting between states, meaning that it is more challenging to reverse an undesired shift in stable state to restore a biodiverse zone of high water quality.

With the number of external stresses facing watercourses set to rise, it has never been more important to build resilience into our waterways.

Growing resilience in our waterways

Protecting and building resilience in our waterways requires collective action.

For landowners, there is a range of ways this can be done.

Re-introducing wetlands
The UK has lost 90% of its wetlands during the last 100 years. Not only has this dramatically reduced wildlife and reduced the level of carbon our soils can sequester, but it has also reduced how much water we store in our land. During floods, wetlands absorb additional water like sponges. During droughts, they slowly release the water, ensuring rivers keep flowing and aquifers are recharged.

Rewilding sections of farmland
Rewilding sections of land can increase water absorption into the soil, reducing flooding and sediment pollution downstream, while increasing biodiversity. It also improves the moisture held in the soil and reduces degradation during drought. Improved waterway resilience through rewilding does not have to come at the expense of local food production either. A 10-year project by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology found that nature-friendly farming methods boost biodiversity without reducing yields.

Natural flood management
Techniques such as leaky dams, attenuation zones, field buffer strips, and floodplain restoration have a number of positive impacts on watercourses. They can improve water storage upstream, reduce flood risk downstream, minimise pollutants entering watercourses, improve local biodiversity, and minimise the impacts of droughts.

Sustainable urban drainage
Protecting and building resilience in our waterways is not just a rural issue. Through sustainable drainage systems (SuDS), urban areas can also have positive impacts. The rate of surface water runoff from developed sites can maintain greenfield rates, which mimic the runoff from undeveloped natural sites. This reduces flood risk to developed sites and surrounding areas. Reed beds and other natural filters can also be used to catch pollutants, and retention ponds and re-naturalisation can hold back water and improve biodiversity.

The last word

Our future’s in the water and we’re all involved.

Some of the big changes will have to come from government policy to preserve and protect our waterways and these will need to be backed up by a well-funded regulatory body with the ability to enforce them.

Actions carried out on a local scale are also crucial to building resilience into watercourses and helping them to combat the rising external stresses they face.

Helping to preserve the health of waterbodies is essential for a resilient future. It cannot be done without a broad coalition of support from all stakeholders.