Sewage pollution incidents threaten UK water quality, new report claims

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A new environmental report released by ocean conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage claims water companies are ‘routinely’ discharging untreated sewage into UK waters.

The 2020 Water Quality Report claims that water companies were responsible for almost 3,000 raw sewage pollution incidents into bathing waters in England and Wales from licensed Combined Sewer Overflows from 1 October 2019 to 30 September 2020, impacting some of the most popular beaches in the country.

With the UK having missed its 2020 target for UK seas to meet Good Environmental Status with 11 out of 15 indicators of marine health failing and only 16% of inland waterways in England meeting Good Ecological Status, the report points further to the ‘woeful state of water quality in the UK.’

Surfers Against Sewage states that they track these discharges with real-time data obtained from water companies and provides pollution alerts from regulators for over 370 beaches through the Safer Seas Service app.

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of The Rivers Trust, commented on the report: “Rivers are being polluted by sewage and agricultural pollution hundreds of thousands of times annually, putting open water swimmers and recreational water users at risk, and degrading ecosystems.

“We know only 14% of rivers are at good ecological status and many have been declining in quality over recent years.

“It is vital we act now, by demanding that our government enforces existing legislation, tightens the loopholes, and allows the necessary investment to manage sewage and other pollutants far better.

“Protecting and improving our waterways is imperative for people, wildlife and the economy.”

Other findings of the report include:

  • Southern Water failed to issue sewage spill notifications for the majority of 2020. In comparison to the 690 sewage spill notifications issued by Southern Water in 2019, they only issued 79 alerts this year, stating “notifications should have been sent but frustratingly they weren’t.”
  • In addition to sewage discharge notifications, a further 2,642 pollution risk warnings were issued by regulators, indicating coastal pollution from agriculture and urban environments, and a potential risk to public health.
  • There are ‘fundamental flaws’ in the water quality testing regime and Bathing Water classification process.
  • Despite some water quality progress over the last 30 years, the UK still ranks 25th out of 30 European countries for Bathing Water quality. Almost 35% of Bathing Waters still need some form of improvement to be elevated to the “excellent” standard.

Following the publication of the report, Southern Water released a statement: “We are fortunate enough to serve an outstandingly beautiful region.

“With more than 700 miles of coastline, 58 of our 83 beaches are rated as excellent for water quality and none fall below the acceptable standard.

“In addition to our statutory disclosures to our regulators, we run a voluntary notification scheme called Beachbuoy.

“An improved service is being finalised in consultation with stakeholder groups including Surfers Against Sewage.

“The new service uses improved software engineering combined with enhanced monitoring at our sites to speed the process of notification and reduce false positives.

“The introduction of the system has had teething problems – we believe that the software to prevent false positives was not operating correctly.

“Our software development teams have continued to refine the engineering over the summer.

“However in previous years notifications were sent out for all activations – meaning that many were false positives.

“During the last stakeholder workshop, we announced that the new system will provide notifications 365 days a year.

“Storm releases are not classed as pollution but each release of rain run off and heavily diluted wastewater prevents the misery of internal flooding for our customers.”

Campaigners will hand in a #EndSewagePollution petition to Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice MP, digitally today.

The petition represents organisations including the Rivers Trust, Outdoor Swimming Society, British Canoeing and the Wildlife & Countryside Link.

The Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, which was set for its second reading in the House of Commons on 13 November, has now been pushed back to January 15 2021 due to the national lockdown.

Proposed by the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Philip Dunne MP, the Bill seeks to provide a ‘much-needed and essential framework for water industry reform to end sewage pollution, restore England’s rivers and protect water users.’

Campaigners are calling for:

  • An enhanced water-quality testing regime providing a true picture of the UK’s water quality, testing for emerging viruses and antimicrobial resistant bacteria as well as accurate real-time water quality information available all-year round for all UK inland and coastal Bathing Waters
  • World-leading water quality legislation with an Environment Bill that exceeds EU water quality standards as well as sewage legislation setting ambitious and legally-binding targets to end untreated sewage discharge in all Bathing Waters by 2030. This includes legislation that holds the same standards for both inland and coastal waters
  • Nature-based solutions to sewage pollution with increased investment and associated targets for the restoration of natural habitats to reduce pressure on the water systems and help prevent sewer overflows, whilst increasing biodiversity and tackling climate change
  • Investment from water companies in sewerage infrastructure to eventually end the use of emergency sewage overflows

The full report can be read here