‘Shocking, outrageous, but not unexpected’: Water company sewage discharges into the sea up 90% last year

The number of times water companies discharged sewage into UK coastal waters increased by almost 90% in the last year, according to a new report from Surfers Against Sewage (SAS).

3,328 discharge notifications were issued during the bathing season, up on 2020’s figure of 1,195. Photograph: Geraint Rowland Photography/Getty Images

The environmental charity said 5,517 sewer overflow discharge notifications were issued by water companies between 30 October 2020 and 30 September 2021 – an 87.6% increase on last year’s figure of 2,941. 

It noted that of these discharge notifications, 3,328 were issued during the bathing season, up on 2020’s figure of 1,195. 

SAS said that while sewer overflows can be an important part of the safe management of sewage systems in the event of exceptionally heavy rainfall, there had been increasing instances of discharge notifications issued at times “many would consider to be normal rainfall events”. 

The numbers are likely to be a conservtive estimate given that some water companies only provided data during the bathing season, and with data only available for coastal waters, SAS said.

According to the report, Southern Water was “by far the biggest culprit” amongst water companies when it came to the use of combined sewage overflows (CSO)s. Over the course of the bathing season alone a total of 1,949 sewage discharge notifications were issued by the company at an average of 38 notifications per bathing water area. In addition, almost 30% of the 286 reports submitted to SAS this year by people who became ill after swimming, came from Southern Water’s operating area.

Hugo Tagholm, SAS chief executive, said: “The findings of our report are shocking and outrageous, but they are by no means unexpected. Time and time again, governments have claimed concern over the pollution of rivers and seas, but have so far failed to take concrete action to change the status quo. Loopholes in laws and systematically defunded regulators have left water companies to run amok. 

“The fact is, water companies continue to increase profits whilst causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequences. Instead, eyewatering sums of money are paid out in dividends to investors and huge pay packets are enjoyed by CEOs.”

Last week, the Environment Agency (EA) and Ofwat launched a “major investigation into sewage treatment works”, after some water companies revealed that “many of their sewage treatment works may not be compliant [with current regulations]”.

Tagholm noted that public outrage over sewage pollution forced the government to insert new clauses into the Environment Act 2021 to show it is serious in tackling the problem.

“The government now states it has the legal tools to hold water companies to account – we will be watching and campaigning to make sure this is the case,” he added.  

READ MORE: Water and the Environment Act: 13 things you need to know

In response, Water UK, the trade body for the water sector said: “We know we need to go further and water companies want to invest more to improve infrastructure and stop harm from storm overflows and outfalls. 

A spokesperson added: “With our coastal bathing waters we have a good base to build on with more than 70% rated as ‘excellent’, and over 90% as either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. This improvement has come about thanks to collaborative working between industry, government, regulators and other stakeholders over several years. Water companies don’t have all the answers and, to get the healthy, thriving rivers and seas that everyone wants, we’ll need to tap into this spirit of collaboration once again.” 

The EA said it welcomed the report and that it had been "increasing the transparency and monitoring of sewage spills" but that "clearly there is much more to do".