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Water Companies Released Raw Sewage Into Waterways in 2021

Updated: Jul 25, 2022

Jenny Donath reports on data revealing the adverse impact of raw sewage discharged into England’s waters.

Photo by Jakob Owens

The government has released data showing that water companies have been regularly discharging massive amounts of raw sewage into England’s bodies of water. Water companies admitted to doing this roughly 1,000 times a day in 2021; that is around 372,000 times and 2.6 million hours in total.

According to the Environment Agency (EA), it is only permitted during heavy rainfall to prevent floodings of living areas and streets. Releasing raw sewage too often affects the water quality and has a negative impact on the environment. However, water companies do it more often to relieve pressure on the pipes. In addition, increased extreme weather conditions, a growth in population and England’s antiquated infrastructure have also contributed to the frequent discharges last year.

The chief executive of EA, Sir James Bevan, said that water firms had to “act now to reduce their overflows to the minimum possible.” In 2020 alone, there have been over 400,000 discharges of sewage into England’s waters. This is a 27% increase compared to 2019.

As Dr Richard Benwall, who is part of the Wildlife Countryside Link, a network of environment groups, commented, “These figures show another year of our waterways being choked by sewage pollution. This must change.”

Regularly discharging sewage via storm flows heavily pollutes the rivers and seas, creating a health risk for the public when swimming in designated bathing waters. It is also a threat to the biodiversity, as the pollution compromises the natural habitats of wildlife and plant life.

The River Trust has provided an interactive map that monitors discharges in real-time. It shows water locations across England and Wales and the number of hours and the amount of storm overflow spillages in 2021. In those locations in which fewer spillages have occurred, the state of the local water is cleaner.

Their campaign, ‘Together for Rivers’, is supposed to raise awareness of the current issue and make sewage pollution data accessible to the public. Their goal is to achieve cleaner designated bathing waters. They have achieved this in Ilkley so far, where the local river has received safe bathing water status – the first one in England. If more rivers, or waters in general, would receive such status, it would provide not only safe bathing places for the public, but also improve the natural habitat for wildlife.

Storm Overflowers Discharge Reduction Plan

To tackle this issue, the government has come up with the ‘Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan’, aiming to overhaul the old sewer system and minimise discharges of raw sewage into seas and rivers.

On 31st March 2022, the government released a press statement promising to impose strict limits on the use of storm overflows and additional monitoring measures to better restrict its usage. Furthermore, the sewer networks of all water companies should be mapped out to eliminate any ecological and public harm.

The Environment Act from 2021 states that a new monitoring and reporting framework will give the Water Services Regulation Authority and the Environment Agency the possibility to act against water companies that do not meet the newly imposed expectations.

“We are the first government to set out our expectation that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows. Today, we are setting specific targets to ensure that those storm overflows are used only in exceptional circumstances – delivering on our Environment Act and building on wider work on water quality.” – George Eustice, Environment Secretary

Between 2020 and 2025, £7.1 billion will be invested by water companies to ensure improvement and protection of the environment: £3.1 billion will be used directly for the improvement of the storm overflow, including £1.9 billion for the Thames Tideway Tunnel super sewer.

Water companies are expected to publish real-time information about their storm flow discharges so that their frequency can be monitored. Furthermore, they must come up with a plan on how to develop their drainage and sewer system in a ‘Drainage and Sewage Management Plan’.

Long Term Goals of the Reduction Plan

The reduction plan aims to completely eliminate any harmful effects on the environment from storm overflows.

By 2035, the government hopes that storm flows shall no longer impact human health. They intend to have 70% fewer raw sewage discharges into bathing waters, removing all pathogens — organisms found in sewage that cause diseases — from sewages that are discharged into designated bathing waters. This can be achieved by applying disinfection, such as ultraviolet radiation; heavier screening controls can be used to separate persistent inorganic material like faeces and organic solids before discharge.

75% of all storm flows must no longer be discharged either in or near water sites that are of high priority. High priority sites include eutrophic sensitive areas, chalk streams, conservation areas (SAC), and water places that are currently over-polluted by storm flows and therefore fail to meet the ecological standard. By 2045, 100% of all those sites must be free from storm flow discharges.

By 2050, all remaining stormflows affecting various other bodies of water must be eliminated, so that the ecology is no longer impacted by them. The ultimate goal is for all bodies of water to have ‘good ecological status’ so as to protect local biodiversity. After 2050, storm flows should only be used during extreme weather circumstances, like extraordinary heavy rainfall. However, the number of discharges should not exceed ten rainfall events per year.

“The Environment Agency will continue to work with government, the water industry, the other regulators and the NGOs to ensure we have healthier sewers, cleaner rivers and a better environment for all.” – Sir James Bevan


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