Water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times last year. Photograph: Oonal/Getty Images Water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times last year. Photograph: Oonal/Getty Images

Do government pledges to tackle sewage pollution hold water?

Recent government commitments to increase transparency on raw sewage discharges into England's watercourses have fallen far short of what is needed, according to environmental groups.

Over recent months DEFRA has made a series of announcements about sharing more information about the pollutants going into waterways.

In September 2020, it announced that it had set up a storm overflow taskforce to “reduce the frequency and volumes of sewage discharges from storm overflows”.

This was followed by a commitment from the taskforce to ensure that water companies will make real-time data on sewage discharges available at bathing sites all year round.

On 29 March this year, Environment minister Rebecca Pow said that she would place a legal duty on water companies to “publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis”.

She also said she would “put a duty on government to publish a plan by September 2022 to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows”.

Pow’s announcement was made prior to the publication of data that revealed water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times last year, for a total of 3.1m hours, from combined sewer overflows (CSOs).

Critics of the latest government commitments targeting sewage discharges say that many of the announcements lack substance and concrete targets, and that others simply repackage existing legal obligations for water companies.

“The publication of real-time data on sewage discharges into bathing sites is a welcome step forward,” said Amy Slack, the head of campaigns and policy at Surfers Against Sewage.

“But the fact is that people are using waterways all over the country that aren’t designated bathing sites – particularly inland.

“What we want to see is a move to provide real-time data across the country, at least at high amenity locations and locations where shellfish are being gathered for human consumption.

“With existing water monitoring technology it should be relatively simple for water companies to report every single raw sewage discharge in real time.”

The sewage discharge taskforce announcement regarding year-round reporting at bathing sites did not have a concrete deadline, but Surfers Against Sewage is expecting all the relevant water companies to comply before the end of 2021.

“Though there have been no public announcements from water companies on exactly when they are going to start supplying this data, we are expecting to see them all supply data this year,” said Slack.

“Some companies have already been supplying information all-year-round and out of the three that don’t, two of them have privately given us commitments that they will be supplying the information continuously by the end of the year.”

Currently, eight water companies operate CSOs that discharge into designated bathing sites. Out of the eight, five are already publishing year-round real-time data on sewage discharges.

The remaining three that don’t yet publish year-round data are Southern Water, Southwest Water Company, and Anglian Water.

“Southern Water and Southwest Water Company have both been in touch with us signalling that they are planning to initiate continuous real-time data publication,” said Slack.

“We are yet to get confirmation from Anglian Water, but we are expecting them to comply as well.”

Currently, there are 21,462 CSOs and pumping stations located in the UK, excluding Scotland.

Around 80% of these are believed to have event duration monitors (EDMs) fitted to them in order to record when they are being used to discharge sewage into waterways.

Discharges from the other 20% largely go unrecorded.

“It is very important to fit EDMs to all of Britain’s CSOs,” said Slack. “It’s also important to continue to push for water companies that make discharges into waters that are not designated bathing sites to publish data from their CSOs.”

Water companies like Thames Water do not discharge into any waters that have been designated as bathing sites so it currently faces less scrutiny with regard to transparency and publishing real-time data.

“Thousands of people are swimming in waters inland that are not officially designated as bathing sites,” said Slack. “Why shouldn’t inland bathers and water sports users have the same information as those on the coast?”

Pow’s commitment to publishing a plan to address the problem of systematic sewage discharges from CSOs by September 2022 has been widely criticised as lacking clear goals.

“There is a worrying lack of detail in the recent announcements,” said Slack.

“There are no commitments on meaningful and progressive targets or even interim targets. We don’t know exactly what is going to be done to deliver the plan.

“Additionally, these announcements have been made in the context of the environment bill being delayed.

“There is a real concern that there will be delays in the delivery of these other commitments as well, at a time when we need to see real action taken right now.”

There are growing concerns that any delays to taking action on sewage discharges into British waterways could have catastrophic ecological consequences.

Earlier this month, a BBC Panorama investigation revealed that water companies have been discharging untreated wastewater into rivers in breach of their permits on a regular basis.

The firms are only allowed to discharge raw sewage into rivers and seas if there has been exceptionally heavy rain and only if the company in question has already treated a specified volume of water, but the Panorama team found that many were discharging frequently and for long periods of time without any of these conditions being met.

Of 10 companies investigated by Panorama, seven had treatment works that were breaching their permits.

Figures released by the Environment Agency in September 2020 showed, for the first time, that no river had achieved good chemical status and only 14% were found to be of a good ecological standard.

Rhiannon Niven, a senior policy officer at the RSPB said: "Given the scale of the problem the current timeframe for change is not fast enough.

"We know our rivers are some of the worst in Europe and we want to see quick action to protect and improve water quality.

"These are issues that have government and water companies have been aware of for a long time, so we expect them to be more ambitious, and put forward stronger commitments to deal with them in a shorter time frame."

Nick Measham, the chief executive of Salmon and Trout Conservation, said: "I think it would be very straightforward to publish accurate real-time data monitoring the spills using modern technology. 

"In 1989 there was a National Rivers Authority (NRA) report known as the 'Kinnersley Report".

"It was titled 'Discharge Consent and Compliance Policy: A Blueprint for the Future' and it discussed the need for timely monitoring of the sort that is only being introduced now.

"It was recognised as a problem all the way back then. It is personally feasible to measure in this day and age all of the emissions 24/7 and I am sure the costs would not be great

"The Environment Agency should also be carrying out its own monitoring of these discharges. The water companies have a track record of falsifying documentation of their pollution discharges. You have to have robust independent regulation."

Salmon and Trout Conservation points to Southern Water as a recent example of why water companies cannot be trusted to accurately report their own performance when it comes to pollution.

In June 2019 Southern Water was hit with a record £126m punishment for spills of wastewater into the environment from its sewage plants and for deliberately misreporting its performance.


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