The Extinction Rebellion Dirty Water Campaign held a protest outside the HQ of Thames Water in March 2023, calling on the company to stop making sewage discharges into the River Thames. Photo by Maureen McLean/Shutterstock
Water companies are “wilfully misleading” the public over their efforts to stop the amount of sewage flowing into the UK’s rivers and coastal regions, according to the government watchdog responsible for holding them to account.
New data shows water companies released sewage into the environment more than 300,000 times in 2022, averaging more than 824 times a day. While the total is a decrease on 2021, the volume recorded by “event duration monitoring” (EDM) systems is still “indefensible”, according to campaigners.
“The 2022 EDM data shows a decrease in spills, which reflects last year’s drier than average weather,” the Environment Agency said in a statement accompanying the figures. “Despite claims by water companies and Water UK, the body that represents their interests, there is no evidence to show it is because of water company action.”
Water companies release sewage through “storm overflow systems” if sewer networks are at risk of being overloaded, which can lead to flooding. The most common reason for spills in 2022, according to the data, was because sewers were at capacity.
But the companies made minimal improvements to their systems across the year, the EA said, amounting to “less than 0.5 per cent of the overall total”.
“So we are very confident that water company action has not significantly contributed to the reduction in flows overall,” it added. “For them to claim otherwise is wilfully misleading.”
A spokesperson for Water UK said water companies were committed to “£56 billion of investment to replumb England, fix storm overflows and protect our rivers and seas” to “ensure we continue to see these number move in a positive direction”.
The combined duration of of the monitored spills across the UK in 2022 stood at 1,754,921 hours, meaning if they came from just one source it would last for more than 200 years.
The worst offender for the number of spills was United Utilities, in north-west England, followed by Yorkshire Water and Severn Trent Water.
“Once again, the data speaks for itself,” said Izzy Ross, from Surfers Against Sewage. “Throughout 2022 water companies continued to pour sewage into our rivers and seas with indefensible frequency.
“Meanwhile over the same period these companies doled out a combined total of £1bn to their shareholders. These are the same companies that have continually failed to invest in upgrading the UK’s outdated sewage infrastructure. Their negligence is unparalleled, and the people and wildlife of the UK are suffering the consequences.”
The Environment Agency said the number of spills water companies are allowing on the sewerage network is “far too high and totally unacceptable,” adding that it is “considering whether any action is required under our Enforcement and Sanctions Policy”.
But despite the high volume of sewage discharges, the overwhelming majority did not break any government regulations.
Lib Dem leader Ed Davey called on Thérèse Coffey, the environment secretary, to “resign or be sacked” following the announcement.
“A historic drought is no excuse for this government’s inaction and failure,” he said. “The environment secretary has let water companies get away with this environmental crime for far too long.
“It is clear she simply doesn’t care enough to get tough on these polluting firms. Thérèse Coffey must now resign or be sacked so we can have an environment secretary who actually cares about saving our rivers from destruction.”
The Water UK spokesperson said: “This is an important milestone and the fourth consecutive year we have seen a fall in the number of spills from each storm overflow.
“This is the start of the journey and to ensure we continue to see these numbers move in a positive direction water companies are bringing forward £56 billion of investment to replumb England, fix storm overflows and protect our rivers and seas.
“There remains much more to be done, and there will be bumps in the road, but companies are committed to building on this positive news to ensure we play our role in bringing about the transformation we all want to see.”
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