Raw sewage discharged into English rivers 375,000 times by water firms

Data from 2021 released at same time as government plan to stop 40% of untreated sewage releases by 2040

Water companies discharged raw sewage into English rivers 372,533 times last year, a slight reduction on the previous year.

The water companies covering England released untreated sewage for a combined total of more than 2.7m hours; compared with 3.1m hours in 2020, according to data released by the Environment Agency (EA) on Thursday.

The data was published as the government announced what it said was the largest overhaul of the sewer system since the 1990s to tackle the problem of discharges.

The government said the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan was a step change in how water companies tackled the number of discharges of untreated sewage, which the government and the public have made clear are unacceptable.

The plan aims to eliminate 40% of raw sewage overflows into rivers by 2040. Untreated sewage and rainwater should only be released into rivers and coastal waters via storm overflow pipes in extreme weather to relieve pressure in the sewerage system. However, evidence over the last three years has shown water companies are routinely using the overflows to discharge untreated sewage rather than treating it.

The environment secretary, George Eustice, said: “We are the first government to set out our expectation that 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.”

However, critics said the plan, which was launched for consultation on Thursday, lacked urgency. Mark Lloyd, the chief executive of the Rivers Trust, said: “I’m disappointed that this plan lacks the urgency we so desperately need. This plan is going to need strong input from civil society and NGOs like the Rivers Trust if it is going to outpace the twinned climate and nature crises we are currently facing. We want to have rivers where people and wildlife can thrive, but the target timelines in the plan are far too slow – I want to see this in my lifetime!”

Data released by the EA on Thursday showed that 10 water companies covering England were releasing raw sewage into waterways for hundreds of thousands of hours in 2021. The 372,533 spills were recorded only on those overflows where event duration monitors were in place: 12,608 of the 14,707 overflows, or 89%.

More than 60 discharges a year from an overflow are considered too high and should trigger an investigation. On average, 14% of discharges from the 10 water companies passed that limit.

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Water companies in England are under investigation by the regulator Ofwat and the EA after they admitted they may have illegally released untreated sewage into rivers and waterways. The investigation will involve more than 2,200 sewage treatment works, with any company found breaching their legal permits liable to enforcement action, including fines or prosecutions. Fines can be up to 10% of annual turnover for civil cases, or unlimited in criminal proceedings.

Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said the government’s plan was not tackling the problem quickly enough.

“The level of public outrage on the sewage pollution scandal continues to grow by the day, yet we’re seeing a consultation today that provides us with targets and timeframes decades away,” he said.

“The water industry must surely be forced to act faster, with a greater urgency to tackle their woeful pollution record that is contributing to the destruction of our rivers and coastline. This industry has already had over 30 years to act; we need to make sure they don’t have the opportunity to put their profits before the planet for the next 30.”

Richard Benwell, the chief executive of the Wildlife and Countryside Link, said: “These figures show another year of our waterways being choked by sewage pollution. This must change, for our own health as well as that of plants and animals struggling to survive in our polluted waters.”

Benwell said if the government was serious about cleaning up rivers “we need a hard deadline set in law to improve the overall quality of our waters and strong enforcement measures. We must halt the most harmful pollution by 2030 and go further, faster to stem the flow of water pollution for people and wildlife.”

Contributor

Sandra Laville

The GuardianTramp

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