Water sector taskforce sets goal to end pollution from storm overflows

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A joint industry-government group established last year to tackle river pollution has agreed a new objective to prevent damage from storm overflows.

The Storm Overflows Taskforce, made up of Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water, Blueprint for Water and Water UK, has agreed to set a long term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows.

Emma Clancy, Chief Executive of Consumer Council for Water, commented on the announcement: “Increasing transparency around the use of storm overflows is a welcome step but consumers will expect it to result in urgent action where pollution is jeopardising the health of our inland waters and the nature and people that enjoy or depend on them.

“Radical change to a complex sewer system will take time to deliver but water companies should now be looking to prioritise improvements in rivers and streams where the damage caused by the over dependence on storm overflows is already acute.”

Following recommendations from the Taskforce, water companies will also increase transparency around when and how storm overflows are used.

Storm overflows were designed to be used during extreme weather to prevent sewers becoming overloaded with a combination of sewage and rainwater, releasing diluted wastewater into rivers rather than letting it back up into people’s homes.

However, climate change has led to increased rainfall and water infrastructure has not kept pace with development growth over decades.

Water companies have agreed to make real-time data on sewage discharges available at bathing sites all year round, meaning surfers, swimmers and other water users can check the latest information, especially after heavy rainfall.

The companies will also accelerate work to install monitoring devices to create a complete picture of their activity by 2023.

In addition, the Taskforce has agreed with water companies that they will publish annual monitoring data on their websites about their use of storm overflows so that progress in reducing their use can be tracked.

The Environment Agency will compile this data into an annual report that is accessible to the public.

The Storm Overflows Taskforce was set up in August 2020 to bring together water companies, regulators and environmental NGOs to accelerate progress in this area, building on work already underway to improve our rivers and waterways.

Its work covers a series of short, medium and long-term actions focused on the goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows – a generational endeavour that will involve significant change and take time to achieve.

The Taskforce update comes as the government confirms it is also working with Philip Dunne MP on the shared ambitions to tackle sewage pollution in rivers.

The Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, introduced by Mr Dunne to Parliament last year, has raised awareness of a number of issues associated with storm overflows.

The government has announced their commitment to continue working with Mr Dunne on the best way to make progress in reducing the harm caused by sewage spilling into our rivers.

Since 2010, 884 storm overflows have been improved to reduce their environmental impact and frequency of operation, with a further 798 improvements planned for the period 2020 – 2025.

Work will continue to consider how the guidance given by the Secretary of State to the regulator Ofwat can best reflect the importance of water quality in water companies’ activities.

Christine McGourty, Water UK Chief Executive, added: “Water companies are passionate about protecting and enhancing our nation’s rivers, and over the next five years we will invest £1.1bn in improving storm overflows as part of our £5bn environment programme.

“Storm Christoph demonstrates how important overflows are in ensuring that sewers don’t flood at times of very heavy rainfall.

“This announcement will help ensure that we can continue protecting people’s homes and businesses whatever the weather.

“We look forward to continuing the close collaboration with Government and other partners to help enhance the health of rivers even further, for the benefit of our customers, communities and the environment.”