Sir James Bevan - Environment Agency - World Water-TechKickstarting World Water-Tech, Sir James Bevan, CEO at the Environment Agency sets the scene at the summit in his Welcome Address on Reflections of Water. 

In his inspirational speech, Sir James Bevan talked about what he has learnt about water from his seven years as CEO of the Environment Agency. He covered the multiple and pressing issues that impact our water environment, and the ways in which these are being tackled and the regulation around it. James also reflected on the improvements and challenges faced during his tenure and offered a vision for our future water environment.

Watch the keynote speech or read the full transcript below: 

What I’ve learned about water

Shortly after I joined the Environment Agency a wise person who ran a nature charity said to me something I have never forgotten. It sounds obvious at first, but it’s actually quite profound, with some profound consequences. What he said was this: “The thing about water, James, is that it gets everywhere”.

Think about that. It’s true. And since water does get everywhere, what it means is that you’d better make sure that you have the right amount of it with the right quality in the right place. Because if you don’t – if you have too much or too little water, or water that contains the wrong things – very bad things will happen: to nature, to people, and to the places all over this country that the Environment Agency exists to serve.

The state of the art: good news and bad news

So what is the state of our waters right now? Like a bad Facebook relationship, the answer is: it’s complicated. Some things are good, some things are bad, and most are between those two ends of the spectrum.

The good news

Let’s start with the good news: overall, water quality in our rivers, estuaries and coastal waters has improved greatly over the last few decades, largely due to robust regulation by the Environment Agency and investment by the water companies. So, for example:

  • Sewage treatment works now discharge 67% less phosphorus and 79% less ammonia into rivers than they did in 1995. That matters a lot, because Phosphorus causes eutrophication which starves the water of oxygen and ammonia kills off aquatic organisms.
  • Since the 1990s there has been a big increase in the numbers of sensitive macroinvertebrates (snails, worms and insects) in our rivers, an indicator of the improving health of England’s waters. Rivers that were heavily polluted during the industrial revolution (most of them) now have salmon back in them; and otters have returned to every English county – another indicator of improved water quality.
  • The number of serious water pollution incidents caused by the water and sewerage companies has been reduced dramatically, from over 500 in the early 1990s down to just 62 in 2021. That is still 62 too many, and the EA is committed to driving that figure down to zero, but that is still several orders of magnitude better than it was.
  • The bathing waters around our coasts are in the best state they have been for decades: in 2022, 72% of beaches and inland waters met the ‘Excellent’ standard, the highest since new stringent standards were introduced in 2015. Two decades ago most would have failed to meet even the minimum standard.

The bad news

The bad news is that the progress in improving water quality that we’ve seen over the last few decades has slowed and in some cases stopped. Our overall water quality is now flatlining: only 14% of our rivers currently meet the criteria for good ecological status. That number has remained stubbornly at 14% for some years now. So we are a very long way from the goal in the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan of getting 75% of our waters close to their natural state.

Why is this happening, and what do we do about it?

We know why water quality in our rivers is flatlining. The two main factors are growing pressure on the water environment, which is caused by a combination of development, a growing population and climate change; and continued pollution of our waters, which comes from two main sources: water companies (largely in the form of pollution from sewage treatment works) and farmers (mostly point source pollution from things like leaky slurry tanks and diffuse pollution in the form of runoff from chemicals and fertiliser spread to land).

What is the Environment Agency doing to improve things?

The EA is playing a central role in tackling these issues.

We work with developers and local authorities to plan and build sustainable homes and communities that use less water. And we are at the heart of the fight against climate change, because we regulate down most of the industrial emissions in this country that are causing it, and because we are helping the country adapt to its effects by building flood defences and helping design more resilient places.

And we are tackling water pollution directly too. We:

  • Stop most pollution from happening in the first place by regulating the water companies and others who would otherwise pollute our waters to seek to ensure they follow the rules that protect our rivers and coasts.
  • Take robust action against those who don’t follow the rules. Since 2015, we have concluded 58 successful prosecutions against the water and sewerage companies, securing fines of over £142m, including an all-time record fine of £90m against Southern Water for major pollution of our coastal waters.
  • Clean up our waters when pollution does occur: We stop the damage from major incidents, require pollution to be cleaned up and, where necessary, take action against those responsible.
  • Protect our coastal bathing waters: through regular monitoring, intervention and close working with the water companies, local authorities and NGOs like Surfers Against Sewage.
  • Work with the water companies and the economic regulator Ofwat to ensure that the water companies invest in better infrastructure to reduce pollution and improve water quality in future.
  • Monitor what is happening in our rivers and bathing waters. We carry out around 90,000 water quality sampling visits a year from 13,000 different locations and use the results to target polluters.
  • Prevent our rivers from drying out: the EA licenses water abstraction and we work with all the main abstractors * water companies, farmers, energy producers and industry – to get it to a sustainable level.
  • Improve water habitats: we plant trees and plants that support wildlife, remove barriers to fish and eel passage, restock rivers with fish, remove invasive species, and restore rivers and streams to their natural state.
  • Work with farmers to secure better compliance with the rules and tackle inadequate farm infrastructure and poor soil and nutrient management.
  • Work with the Government to help develop future policy that will drive better water quality.

The vision and how to get there

What would success look like? The vision is simple, and set out in the Government’s 25 Year Environment plan: clean and plentiful water.

However, that’s easy to say and hard to do. It will be particularly challenging to achieve good status for all rivers in England. That’s because there are multiple factors affecting our rivers, a lot of pressure from growing human populations who are using more water and producing more sewage, and from industry and agriculture which also need a lot of water.

But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we can’t get there. Success will require everyone, and I mean literally everyone, to play their part.

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. Some of that is about the right culture and behaviour change, which costs nothing. Some of it is about investment, in constructing and maintaining modern sewage systems, in slurry storage on farms, in better transport infrastructure and better drainage in urban environments. And some of it is about ensuring that everyone complies with the laws that protect our watercourses.

Which leads to the second set of players on this stage: the regulators. Regulation works where there is a robust regulatory framework accompanied by the powers and resources to enforce it. The government has recently given the Environment Agency more powers, more people and more money to do just that. We welcome that and will use those powers and those resources to maximum effect.

The government itself is the third major player. All governments need to ensure that the right laws, policies and funding are in place to protect and enhance our water environment. We welcome this government’s various initiatives in this space, including the 25 Year Environment Plan itself, the new targets for water and other essential elements for nature recovery announced in December and the Environmental Improvement Plan announced last month – all of which the EA helped design and which we will now play a central part in delivering.

A fourth set of players are the NGOs. At both national and local level we are seeing people and organisations come together to identify what is happening in their local watercourses, to protect and enhance them and to restore nature. NGOs reach places, literally and metaphorically, that no-one else can. That is fantastic, and many of these NGOs are the EA’s partners in delivering the improvement in water quality we all seek.

And finally, there’s us – each of us in our daily lives. We all need to take responsibility by using water wisely and ensuring we don’t pollute it with our household waste.

Demand more but pick your targets carefully

One of the most striking things from my time as Chief Executive has been the massive increase in the attention paid to water: debates in Parliament, public campaigning and huge media attention, particularly at the moment, all calling for action to protect and restore our waters and demanding more of the Environment Agency and the other regulators, of the government, and of the water companies and farmers.

All that’s good: there’s nothing more important than water, and when people mobilise behind a cause things happen that might not otherwise have done so. I welcome the fact that the Environment Agency itself is being challenged to do more: no organisation is perfect; all good organisations constantly seek to listen, learn and improve; and while we will always do the best we can with the powers and resources we have, we can always do better.

All I would say is let’s have this debate on the basis of the facts not assertions – and there are some wild assertions, myths and outright untruths flying around. Let’s also be clear that we all want the same thing: everyone has an interest in clean and plentiful water.

And finally while it’s my job to take the criticism that comes the EA’s way, let’s please remember that the staff of the Environment Agency are not the enemy or the problem: they are the people trying to fix the problem, they are passionate and committed professionals who will always go the extra mile for the people and places we serve, and they need and deserve the nation’s support and thanks, not abuse.


I end where I began. The most important thing about water, everyone, 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.