Water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters in England more than 400,000 times last year, Environment Agency (EA) data has revealed.
Untreated human effluent poured into rivers and seas for a total of 3.1m hours via storm overflow pipes that are supposed to be used only in extreme weather to relieve pressure in the sewage system.
The data is being published for the first time as a result of pressure on the EA, water companies and the government over the scale of sewage pollution in rivers.
Data for 2019 published by the Guardian last year showed raw sewage was discharged for 1.5m hours into rivers alone.
Countries are legally obliged to treat sewage before it is released into waterways. Discharges of untreated human waste are permitted only in exceptional circumstances, for example after extreme rainfall, the European court of justice has ruled.
The new figures show the scale of sewage discharges in England into rivers and seas. They have increased from 292,864 incidents in 2019 to 403,171 in 2020 – a 37% rise.
This is partly because more monitoring of storm overflows by water companies has this year provided a much clearer picture of the scale of the pollution. In 2020, monitoring was placed on 12,092 storm overflows, compared with 8,276 in 2019, a 46% increase. The EA said average spill numbers remained similar to last year.
Sir James Bevan, the EA’s chief executive, said: “Storm overflows are designed to discharge sewage to rivers or the sea at times of heavy rainfall to prevent it backing up into homes and streets. But higher population and climate change means they will discharge more often.
“The Environment Agency is working actively with the water companies to ensure overflows are properly controlled and the harm they do to the environment stopped. Increased monitoring and reporting of storm overflows is part of the solution. It means everyone can see exactly what is happening, and will help drive the improvements and future investment that we all want to see, with £1.1bn of investment already planned for the next four years.”
The Rivers Trust said the scale of discharges by water companies was shocking and that real-time monitoring of sewage discharges into rivers was needed.
Michelle Walker, the trust’s deputy technical director, said: “It’s good to finally see this data in the public domain, and in particular the significant increase in the number of overflows being monitored over the last four years.
“While we know we can’t make a direct comparison to last year’s … data due to the 50% increase in the number of overflows being monitored, the data raises alarm bells.
“If storm overflows work as designed, they will discharge less than 20 times per year, when there has been extreme rainfall … The 2020 data indicates that, appallingly, almost one in five overflows across England are discharging more than 60 times per year, a number which is supposed to trigger an EA investigation. This is a staggering statistic.”
Walker said there had been an increase in the recreational use of rivers during the pandemic, which was likely to continue. Real-time data for more rivers, not just the one river in Ilkley for which bathing water status has been granted, was needed, she said.
Hugo Tagholm, of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Water companies making rampant profits at the expense the health of our rivers, ocean and people has to stop.
“Whilst the government is proposing new laws to be agreed for 2022, the sewage pollution crisis is here today and needs swift, decisive and enforced action. “We will not allow government and water companies to just kick this issue into the long grass ... what we need now is radical action.”
A spokesperson for the industry body, Water UK, said: “Water companies are committed to playing their part in reducing any harm from storm overflows. As the data shows, we have massively increased monitoring, with the aim of getting 100% of the 14,630 overflows in England monitored by the end of 2023. This data is invaluable and allows investment to be targeted where it’s needed most.”
Water companies would be investing £1.1bn to improve storm overflows over the next five years as part of a wider £5bn programme of environmental improvements and the industry was playing a leading role in the government’s storm overflow taskforce that was looking at long-term alternatives, the spokesperson said.
The government announced on Monday that it was putting the reduction of sewage discharges by storm overflows into a legal framework. Ministers will have to come up with a plan to reduce them by 2022 – a timeline that was criticised by campaigners as too slow.
Raw sewage discharges into seas and rivers by water companies
Anglian Water – spill events: 17,428; duration in hours: 170,547
Welsh Water – spill events: 3,969; duration in hours: 21,300
Northumbrian – spill events: 32,497; duration in hours: 178,229
Severn Trent – spill events: 60,982; duration in hours: 558,699
Southwest Water – spill events: 42,053; duration in hours: 375,37
Southern Water – spill events: 19,782; duration in hours: 197,213
Thames Water – spill events: 18,443; duration in hours: 215,886
United Utilities – spill events: 113,940; duration in hours: 726,450
Wessex Water – spill events: 28,994; duration in hours: 237,035
Yorkshire Water – spill events: 65,083; duration in hours: 420,419
Data provided by the Environment Agency