Over half of England and a good proportion of Wales will be at risk of failing Water Framework Directive objectives, mainly because of nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, according to the Environment Agency.

The prediction was made by Helen Wakeham, the agency’s head of land quality, during the Home-Grown Cereals Authority’s research and development conference in Grantham in Lincs.

But she added that farmers would be relieved to hear that advisory measures would be more cost-effective at tackling the issue than increased regulation.

“That’s where you get your best bang for your buck.

If we can get slight changes in business practices it will do far more than through punitive changes,” she said.

In priority catchment sensitive farming areas 20m had been set aside to push advisory aspects.

“The reality is there would be a huge cost in prosecuting everyone.”

But the risk was the industry not going for it, she added.

“There is a real incentive for light touch measures to work.”

The EU Directive integrates land and water management, with planning built around nine distinct water catchment areas in England and Wales and the aim to improve overall water quality, not just in rivers, but also in wetlands, estuaries, ground and coastal waters.

But Mrs Wakeham exploded the myth that water must be restored to “some prehistoric pristine condition”.

“It is actually looking for good ecological condition,” she said.

“We want the fish to be swimming around broadly happy, but not in palatial surroundings.”

The current programme of characterisation was assessing where water quality was at risk.

“It is very rare to be able to say a problem was caused by just one factor.

For example phosphorus pollution in a certain area might be coming from both a local sewage unit and a pig farmer applying manure rich in phosphorus.”

Mrs Wakeham urged farmers to get involved in negotiating solutions to problems within their catchments.

“It is really down to the people who are interested in that catchment to work out solutions themselves.”

The Directive shouldn’t mean sweeping changes in land use, she said.

“But it is considering land and fertiliser use on a daily basis.”

And there were some opportunities for farmers within the legislation as nutrition use was included in the agri-environment schemes.

“The opportunity to get paid for soil and water management seems like a great one,” she concluded.

mike.abram@rbi.co.uk