UK water companies accused of discharging raw sewage even during dry weather

Water companies in the UK have discharged sewage more than 9,200 times over the past 12 months, and are accused of discharging sewage when there has been no rain more than 160 times – something they are not legally allowed to do.

UK water companies accused of discharging raw sewage even during dry weather

Image: Surfers Against Sewage

Those are some of the headline findings from Surfers Against Sewage’s latest annual water quality report, published today (24 November).

The report confirms that, between October 2021 and September 2022, the environmental NGO issued 9,216 sewage pollution alerts through its Safer Seas and Rivers Service. A quarter of these alters were issued during this summer bathing season. The Service provides digital alerts cautioning members of the public against activities such as swimming, surfing and paddleboarding in places where sewage discharges or other events are worsening water quality. It covers 450 beach and river locations across the UK.

Sewage pollution at beaches and rivers in the UK has been headline news this year on multiple occasions. Water companies do have the right to pump untreated sewage out into rivers or the sea in periods of heavy rainfall, in a process called ‘storm overflows’. The Government weakened restrictions on this right in September 2021, due to a shortage of treatment chemicals. Water firms were confirmed at this point about a backlog of sewage.

Then, this summer, bathers reported more discharges than usual when there was a period of heavy rainfall after drought. Also this summer, the UK Government asked water companies to significantly reduce – and improve the quality of – all storm overflows discharging into or near designated bathing water by 2035. This request was part of a plan from the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) that was met with immediate backlash from opposition parties. It is now the subject of a potential legal challenge.

Even Surfers Against Sewage has stated that this plan is “kicking the can down the road, legitimising sewage pollution for the next 27 years”.  

Surfers Against Sewage’s report raises a fresh concern – that water companies may be releasing sewage even in dry weather, in an illegal process known as conducting ‘dry spills’. The charity looked at Met Office data regarding the weather during and around the times it issued sewage pollution alters, concluding that 146 were ‘dry spills’. The majority of these dry spills, 95 out of the total, were in areas where bathing water quality is classified as ‘excellent’.

This finding, said Surfers Against Sewage’s head of campaigns and policy Amy Slack, is “especially alarming” after a year in which the public “have made clear their disgust at what’s happening to our rivers and seas”.

She added: “The government is complicit in the sewage scandal, failing to enforce and strengthen regulations to protect the health of the UK’s waterways – and the health of its citizens. It’s high time the government stepped up and took real action to curb the destructive and selfish behaviour of the water companies.”

The NGO is using the report to reiterate its six key policy recommendations on sewage and bathing waters. By 2030, it wants the UK Government to:

  • Completely end sewage discharges in bathing waters and reduce all untreated sewage discharges elsewhere by 90%
  • Implement an enhanced water quality testing regime
  • Designate 200 additional inland locations as bathing waters
  • Set stricter water quality legislation with legally-binding targets (these are now overdue)
  • Outline and implement strong plans to use nature-based solutions for sewage

Government response

edie reached out to the Environment Agency, Defra, water sector regulator Ofwat and Natural Resources Wales for a response to the Surfers Against Sewage report.

An Ofwat spokesperson said: “What we are witnessing, with sewage being released into the environment, isn’t acceptable. Water companies do not take enough responsibility for their impact on the environment. We have a live investigation into how all wastewater companies manage their sewage treatment works and have opened six enforcement cases into companies based on our findings to date. We will review the findings of this report with interest.”

While Ofwat’s investigation is ongoing, it is working directly with water companies. The regulator told edie that it has secured a commitment from four wastewater companies to a 40% reduction in storm overflows against the sector average by 2025.

A Natural Resources Wales spokesperson said: “We are concerned about the impact of storm discharges on our water quality. We are taking action to address the issue via the Wales Better River Quality Taskforce.

“The taskforce brings together Welsh Government, NRW, Ofwat, Dŵr Cymru and Hafren Dyfrdwy, with independent advice from Afonydd Cymru and the Consumer Council for Water. Collaboratively, the Taskforce has published a series of action plans to gather greater evidence on the impact of storm overflows on our rivers and the sea to reduce the impacts they cause, to improve regulation, and to educate the public on sewer misuse.

“Water companies have a responsibility to the environment, as well as their customers, and they must take this issue seriously. We will continue to challenge the water companies to make sure storm overflows are properly controlled. We will investigate any cases of non-compliance and where appropriate take the required enforcement action.”

Defra has published a blog responding to the Surfers Against Sewage report here.

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