Sewage has been flowing into Britain’s rivers and seas once again at nearly 200 sites following the first heavy rain in two months.
Campaigners expressed outrage. “A bit of rain comes and our rivers and seas are used as toilets,” Ashley Smith, of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp) told i.
Live data provided by Thames Water showed 137 treatment works had discharged partially treated sewage into rivers in the 48 hours to Friday afternoon, with 94 still actively flowing at that time.
“The Thames Water sewage map shows how utterly dependent the company has become on dumping untreated sewage to prop up underinvestment,” said Mr Smith.
The company said: “We’ve committed £1.6 billion of investment in our sewage treatment works and sewers over the next two years. This will help us deliver our commitment to a 50 per cent reduction in the total annual duration of discharges across London and the Thames Valley by 2030, and within that an 80 per cent reduction in sensitive catchments.”
Thames Water is the only company to provide such live data for all its storm overflows. The company said “Taking action to improve the health of rivers is a key focus for us and we want to lead the way with our transparent approach to data.”
Data collected by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) showed at least 60 coastal sites in England and Wales where discharges had taken place in the previous 48 hours. 42 of those were within Southern Water’s area of operation, which runs from Hampshire to Kent.
The company provides real-time data for its coastal discharges via its “beachbuoy” system.
A spokesperson for the company said storm overflows were necessary to protect homes and business from flooding, but that the company had “heard our customers and we know that this is not an acceptable system moving forwards, and as part of £2bn of investment in our network between 2020 and 2025, we are working hard to reduce our reliance of storm overflows”.
There was no data available in Scotland, where all of the coastal discharge monitors checked by SAS are currently switched off or undergoing maintenance, or Northern Ireland.
Josh Harris of Surfers Against Sewage toldi: “The recent deluge of sewage dumps across the UK highlights that the government’s plan to tackle storm sewage discharges by 2050 is laughable in its lack of ambition. Their nonchalant approach is a farce.
“With raw sewage pumping into our precious rivers, lakes and coastline every day, we need action now. The public have had enough of the sewage scandal and government and the regulator needs to act.”
ihas launched a Save Britain’s Rivers campaign to raise awareness and understanding of the plight of the country’s waterways and push for policy change.
River campaigners outside Thames Water’s catchment told i that it was impossible to know if and where sewage was being released in their region because water companies had not made their live data publicly available.
In such cases, discharges can only be confirmed visually or by waiting for water companies to file their annual discharge reports to the Environment Agency detailing their total discharges for the year.
According to Top of the Poops, who collated the data, there were at least 470,000 discharges last year. The vast majority of these will be legal. The UK operates a system of combined sewage overflows, whereby surface water and sewage flow through the same pipes.
When a sewage treatment works is operating at full capacity and is at risk of being overwhelmed, environmental permits allow it to legally discharge sewage into nearby rivers or seas.
Nevertheless, the regulators do not know how much sewage is discharged and six companies are currently being investigated for admitting when they are in breach of their permits. Ofwat and the Environment Agency (EA) are themselves being investigated by the Office for Environmental Protection for failing to fulfil their enforcement duties.
In parts of the country where it has snowed over recent days, campaigners told i that they expected discharging might not peak until the next few days as settled snow begins to melt and feeds into the sewage network.
Matt Staniek, who runs the Save Windermere campaign in the Lake District, said that he expected the snow and rain forecast for the next week to cause discharges in the national park but that it would be impossible to get the full picture because United Utilities, the local water company, does not share live data.
“The Thames Water map is horrifying but at least the data is there. Why don’t we have it here? Why isn’t United Utilities providing it?”
A spokesperson for Water UK, the industry body, said that water companies were committed to live data but were still awaiting government technical guidance. “Rather than waiting companies are already getting on with releasing maps so the public can start receiving this information,” a spokesperson told i.
United Utilities declined to comment. Defra were approached for comment.