NFU gets answers from EA on water quality following Southern Water case

The Environment Agency (EA) has provided answers to a number of important NFU questions around water quality, following an Ofwat investigation that found Southern Water had deliberately misreported performance information at a number of sewerage treatment plants.

Click here to jump straight to the questions and a document with the EA's answers.

What was the result of the Ofwat investigation?

The 2019 investigation by the water regulator concluded that the performance information was misreported because Southern Water had manipulated wastewater sampling processes at the plants.

Ofwat also found that the water company had failed to operate a number of wastewater treatments works properly, which led to equipment breakdowns and unpermitted spills of wastewater into the environment.

Southern Water was subsequently ordered to pay £126m in penalties and rebates to existing and former wastewater customers, in what was the biggest payment package ever imposed by the regulator.

The EA also launched its own investigation into the practices at Southern Water, which led to the water company pleading guilty to 51 charges at Maidstone Crown Court in March this year.

What has the NFU done on behalf of members?

The NFU wrote to the EA at the time to express concerns about what these findings might mean for past assessments of water quality in the local area, the attribution of pollution to different sources, and the practices of other water companies.

The NFU received assurances from the EA in both a written response and a meeting that followed, but it was also agreed that NFU members would benefit from a Q&A on the matter and related issues.

Click here to download the NFU document with answers from the EA to the questions below.

Please note: This document is accessible to NFU members only and you will be asked to log in.

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  • How does the EA monitor water quality?
  • How is water pollution attributed to different sources?
  • Does the EA know how much pollution stems from agriculture or does it group agricultural pollution with other rural sources?
  • Is it true that the number of sampling sites and samples taken has fallen dramatically over recent years?
  • If so, does this mean that more recent data cannot be compared with older data and, therefore, trends in water quality cannot be identified?
  • How can the EA be confident about the amount of pollution attributed to agriculture if less data is available?
  • How are water companies funded, particularly for their work on improving water quality?
  • Does the funding of water companies put them in a better position to improve water quality than agriculture?
  • Is it true that water companies self-report data on water quality?
  • In light of the regulator finding that Southern Water manipulated its wastewater sampling process and misreported information about the performance of a number of sewerage treatment sites, how can farmers be sure that the undeclared pollution was not attributed to agriculture?
  • How can farmers be sure that other water companies have not been manipulating the sampling process and misreporting information about pollution too?
  • What are combined sewer overflows and what impact do they have on water quality?

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