Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Understanding changes in quality of UK freshwaters

This programme aims to examine:

  • how pollutants enter, transform and interact within rivers, and the ecosystems that rivers support
  • how the infiltration and movement of pollutants will be amplified or mitigated by a changing hydrological cycle induced by climate change
  • strategies for improving or sustaining the quality of rivers across the UK.
£8.4 million
This programme will run from 2022 to 2026
Partners involved:
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)

The scope and what we're doing

This programme will address a significant gap in our understanding of how pollutants enter, transform and interact within freshwaters, and the ecosystems that freshwaters support.

It will consider how the infiltration and movement of chemical substances (pollutants) will be amplified or mitigated by a changing hydrological cycle induced by climate change and other catchment changes.

Through the improvement and development of tools to monitor and measure contamination, as well as collaboration and engagement with key stakeholders, it will help us to develop management and mitigation strategies for improving or sustaining the quality of freshwaters across the UK.

The overarching programme will enable transformative research in three distinct areas:

  • better understanding of the sources and processes by which pollutants are entering, mixing, being transported through and leaving freshwater systems
  • investigating the impact of mixtures of chemical (and biological) contaminants and their exposure regimes on the quality, ecology and biodiversity of UK freshwater ecosystems
  • enabling and informing the development of better plans for adaptation, mitigation and detection of risks for key stakeholders, now and in the future.

The projects funded through this programme will be interdisciplinary, bringing together relevant experts from environmental science and other relevant disciplines and sectors in the UK that are needed to deliver the integrated cross-sectoral research required.

Projects will increase our understanding of:

  • how chemical (and biological) contaminants enter, transform and interact within river systems, and how that impacts on the quality of the ecosystems that they support
  • how we can better adapt and mitigate future risks to river quality related to climate and other changes impacting the hydrological cycle.

The programme will support innovative collaborations including those with intervention-focused organisations and practitioners, creating a community of researchers and funding projects that span the three thematic areas of the programme.

Collaborations will include steer from the UK government, devolved administrations, policy, regulators and industry, to ensure that they enable sustained change and long-term benefits.

Projects will work closely with relevant stakeholders during the design phase and throughout the lifespan of the project.

Why we're doing it

The scientifically-informed EU Water Framework Directive was adopted in October 2000 to assess the current status of waters and introduce policies to improve water quality.

However, the recent RSPB troubled waters report (PDF, 3.2KB) describes how rivers and even protected wetlands are sufficiently polluted that there is significant ecological damage.

Every English river failed to reach ‘good ecological status’ and the general ecological status of many lakes, streams and other freshwater systems across England, Wales and Northern Ireland are continuing to decline. This indicates a gap in our knowledge and understanding of the issues.

Much of the pollution stems from agriculture, ineffective planning and sewage overflows. Despite organisational fines and sanctions, the recent water and sewerage companies in England: environmental performance report for 2020 (GOV.UK) indicates that pollution by chemicals and pathogens is a persistent issue.

Management practices, such as precision agriculture, have been designed and widely adopted to reduce chemical runoff from agriculture. However, rivers are among the most sensitive of all ecosystems to the effects of global change, with main stressors including:

  • agricultural intensification
  • hydromorphological alteration
  • climate change.

Climate change projections suggest that atmospheric circulations across the UK are changing and will continue to change. The hydrological cycle is thus changing, as a result influencing the size of chemical flux to freshwater systems, and the frequency by which this occurs.

In the context of changing hydroclimatological and hydroecological processes, less research has been conducted on water quality, freshwater ecosystems, and river and groundwater temperature than on rainfall and river flow. This reinforces the need for further investment in this area.

Strategic importance and timeliness

Research-led understanding is needed to inform policy to regulate local agricultural practices, waste-water organisations, industries and domestic use of our freshwater resource. Research is crucially needed now for the following reasons:

  • the recent water and sewerage companies in England: environmental performance report for 2020 (GOV.UK) reiterates that pollution by chemicals and pathogens is an issue that is not subsiding. Fines and sanctions are being enforced, however the issue remains, further amplifying the need for better and more targeted research
  • the Environmental Audit Committee (UK Parliament) launched an inquiry into water quality in rivers in recognition that water pollution remains a major problem in achieving targets established under the EU Water Framework Directive, which will be carried over in some form to targets under the forthcoming Environment Act. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s water quality in rivers report (PDF, 1.3KB) has now been published
  • the EU exit has necessitated the need for standalone UK water regulation in addition to regulations that are already in place
  • a changing hydrological cycle means that it is necessary to identify a baseline to understand the current causes of ongoing deterioration in UK rivers, to predict changes to help develop management, adaptation and mitigation strategies that are ‘future-proofed’
  • technology, for example geographic information systems using remotely-sensed data, eDNA, new approach methodologies and advanced machine learning models, is advancing, which enables us to better understand pollution and its impact on freshwater systems
  • it is important that we know what the chemical environment will look like by the end of the 25-year environmental plan to drive policy thinking.

Who to contact

Ask a question about this programme

Understanding changes in quality of UK freshwaters team


Governance, management and panels

The programme advisory group provides strategic advice to the programme, and to the freshwater quality programme champion, to ensure the successful delivery of the programme’s objectives, against agreed milestones and deliverables.

Members will be appointed by NERC and Defra and will include representatives from:

  • academia
  • policy
  • regulators
  • industry.


The secretary, based at NERC’s head office, provides administrative support to the board.

Last updated: 18 October 2022

This is the website for UKRI: our seven research councils, Research England and Innovate UK. Let us know if you have feedback or would like to help improve our online products and services.