Environment

The government has refused to make water companies monitor how much sewage they're dumping in rivers

The government accepted the majority of MP's recommendations on river pollution, but rejected calls to monitor the amount of sewage being dumped.

The River Wye

The River Wye suffers from high levels of pollution from intensive poultry farming. Image: David Merrett. CC BY 2.0

The government has rejected a recommendation from MPs to make water companies measure the amount of sewage being discharged into rivers in a fresh blow to water pollution campaigners. 

The rejection was included in the government’s response to the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report on water quality in rivers, which underscored the dangerously high levels of sewage, agricultural, plastic and chemical pollutants in England’s waterways. 

EAC chair Philip Dunne MP called the government’s acceptance of the majority of the committee’s recommendations “broadly positive”, though the committee said it was “concerned” and “disappointed” that other key recommendations had been rejected. 

The report, published in January, warned of a “chemical cocktail” of pollutants in England’s rivers which risked breeding antibiotic-resistant bacteria as well as compromising human and animal health. 

Committee members made a series of recommendations around monitoring and tackling pollution, which the government has now responded to.

The government accepted 23 of 55 recommendations, and “partially agreed or noncommittally responded” to 27, the EAC said. This included vague commitments to improving water quality and investing in outdated infrastructure.

However, five of the recommendations made were rejected outright, including a call to make water companies install volume monitors to measure the amount of sewage entering rivers via pipes managed by the companies.

Currently, most pipes – known as “storm overflows” – are only fitted with event duration monitors, which measure the amount of time over which sewage is discharged. In 2021, sewage was discharged into English rivers a total of 375,000 times over 2.7m hours. 

The government said that measuring the amount of sewage entering rivers “is limited by technical feasibility and cost”, adding that the 2021 Environment Act will require water companies to “monitor the quality of water upstream and downstream” of “assets” like storm overflow pipes.

A recommendation from the EAC on tying executive pay to performance on sewage discharges was responded to noncommittally by the government, pointing to existing guidance from Ofwat on the subject. 

“Where a company underperforms, including breaching permit conditions, this should be reflected in the awards made,” the response read.

“On 18th February 2022, Ofwat wrote to the chairs of company remuneration committees to underscore its expectations against the backdrop of ongoing public concern on environmental issues.”

In the past, water companies have reneged on promises to limit financial rewards to shareholders, with Southern Water, Thames Water and Yorkshire Water all turning back on a pledge not to pay out dividends in 2020 after Ofwat urged investment in infrastructure. 

The government additionally rejected recommendations around agricultural pollution and microplastics, including a call to include voluntary targets on reducing microplastic pollution from textiles in the government’s “Textiles 2030 clothing sustainability” scheme.

The EAC’s recommendation to introduce a presumption against planning permission for new intensive livestock units in areas that are suffering from excessive nutrient pollution was rejected, along with a call for stricter regulations around house building in areas with high levels of nutrient pollution.

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Nutrient pollution occurs where too many nutrients – mainly nitrogen and phosphorus – are added to bodies of water, causing growth of algae and starving rivers of oxygen. This kind of pollution comes from farm activity, such as spreading fertiliser and runoff of chicken excrement. 

The EAC said it was “concerned that the government has rejected its recommendations around agricultural pollution, despite figures showing that diffuse pollution from agricultural sources prevents 40 per cent of rivers and other water bodies from achieving good ecological status”. 

Environment minister, Rebecca Pow, said: “Water quality is a top priority for me. We are the first government to set out our expectation that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows and we are consulting on the single biggest programme in history to tackle storm sewage discharges.

“We are setting ambitious targets, delivering on our Environment Act and cracking down on those water companies that are not playing their part in delivering the clean water that the people of this country want to see.”

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