DEFRA has told Ofwat to stop water companies dumping sewage. Photograph: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images DEFRA has told Ofwat to stop water companies dumping sewage. Photograph: Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Stop water companies dumping sewage, DEFRA tells Ofwat

The government has said poor performing water companies “rapidly need to improve” with “far less reliance” on storm overflows in its strategic policy statement for Ofwat, but stops short of making it a legal requirement.

In the statement published today ahead of a two-month-long consultation, DEFRA states that the water services’ economic regulator Ofwat needs to incentivise water companies to both “significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows”, as well as improve their performances to meet Environment Agency requirements. 

It also says that the regulator must drive water companies to be more ambitious in their environmental planning and delivery towards goals in the 25-Year Environment Plan.

The Ofwat consultation comes as Southern Water has been hit with a record £90m fine for repeatedly and deliberately dumping raw sewage into seas along the south coast in breach of its environmental permits.

Under a section entitled ‘Getting the Basics Right’, the strategy statement describes the water industry’s environmental performance as having “stagnated and, in certain cases, deteriorated in recent years” and that “poor environmental performance is not acceptable and poorly performing companies need to rapidly improve”.

It continues: “We expect companies to significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows, so they operate infrequently. We expect overflows that do the most harm or impact on the most sensitive and highest amenity sites to be prioritised first”. 

The strategy lays out expectations for Ofwat to support an increase in the use of nature-based solutions, and to challenge water companies to contribute to the relevant outcomes of the 25-Year Environment Plan and targets in the Environment Bill. 

It also states that it expects the regulator to get companies to prioritise improvements to priority habitats such as chalk streams, and to encourage them to work in partnerships across catchments, and maximise co-funding and green finance opportunities.

READ MORE: Passing the buck - Who’s accountable for the ongoing pollution of a rare chalk stream?

The government’s 25-Year Environment Plan sets out aims to achieve “clean and plentiful water” by improving at least three quarters of England’s waters so they are close to their natural state as soon as is practicable. 

Further outcomes in the 25-Year Environment Plan include thriving plants and wildlife, climate change adaptation and mitigation, enhancing biosecurity, reversing the decline in nature, and prioritising recovery of protected habitats.

The document also notes problems being caused by excessive nutrient levels in waterways, saying that “Ofwat should recognise the need for water companies and other stakeholders to support efforts to tackle nutrient pollution, and to consider where it is appropriate to use the regulatory framework to support such efforts”. 

Furthermore, the strategy document calls for Ofwat to challenge water companies to plan strategically to tackle long term risks of drought and flooding.

The Environment Agency and Ofwat also launched a review today of the Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP) which sets out the work water companies in England are required to do to meet their obligations from environmental legislation and UK government policy.

One drafted change is a moving to a programme that is “outcome rather than output focused”, meaning that water companies will be “expected to deliver wider environmental outcomes that go beyond their statutory duties, such as contributing to habitat restoration and sustainable water management”.

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