Environment

Water companies say they don't know how much sewage they're dumping in rivers

Bosses claim technology isn't yet available to measure the amount of sewage being dumped into England's rivers.

Credit: Ashley Smith

Water company bosses said they have the “ambition” to stop sewage spills by 2030 but don’t yet have the required technology or investment to do so.

England’s water companies have claimed they don’t have the technology to measure how much raw sewage they are dumping across rivers and beaches and avoided committing to a 2030 end date for such spills.

The bosses of England’s largest privatised water companies said they  had the “ambition” to commit to a proposed target of zero pollution incidents by 2030 during an evidence session with MPs on Wednesday, (October 13) but that significant further investment was needed. 

Water services regulator Ofwat said it had backed investment of “around £1bn every year” to help water companies clean up their act, insisting a “step-change in culture and commitment” would be required. Campaigners  called the comments from bosses at the inquiry  “laughable”.

The evidence session formed part of the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into river quality, launched in light of recent figures showing just 14 per cent of rivers in England are rated as having “good” ecological status.

Water companies have come under fire in recent years for their part in polluting rivers, with data showing that sewage was dumped into waterways via storm overflow pipes more than 400,000 times during 2020.

The Environment Agency, which is responsible for environmental protection across the UK, currently allows spills following extreme weather events to ease system pressures. 

However, committee chair Phillip Dunne, the Conservative MP for Ludlow in Shropshire, put it to water bosses on Wednesday that such spills had become “routine” events.

The heads of Southern Water, South West Water, Northumbrian, Severn Trent and Thames Water were asked by Dunne if they would be “willing to live with” reducing such sewage spills to zero by 2030. 

Liv Garfield, chief executive of Severn Trent responded that the target matched “the ambition across the [water] sector” but added that “investment would be required”. 

Susan Davy, chief executive of South West water agreed with the sentiment of ambition but refused to commit to the target proposed. Investment and “some other action” would be required, she said.

Davy added that more tourists and rain  as well as a change in “what’s going into our networks” had made it more difficult for water companies’ infrastructure to cope. 

The executives were also grilled on their monitoring of sewage spills, with most companies currently only able to measure what time discharges start and end. 

The panel of executives said they were trialling technology to monitor the volume of discharges, but wanted to find the best possible solution before making a “commitment”. 

Ashley Smith, founder of campaign group Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, said the suggestion that water companies lack technology to measure their flows is “laughable”.

“Sewage works already have volumetric monitors working at various stages in the process and in Thames Water’s area.

“It took [water companies] from 2013 until now just to get the simple on-off event duration monitors in place and I would say that is because they knew these would expose a scandal – and they truly did.”

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A spokesperson from Ofwat said:

“Water companies have a critical role in protecting and preserving the natural environment. We have backed investment of around £1bn each and every year for water companies to improve the environment. 

“But water companies must show a step-change in culture and commitment to make best use of the tools and funding already available to address these challenges.”

A spokesperson from the Environment Agency said:

“New measures in the Environment Bill will drive action from water companies to reduce discharges from storm overflows and ensure regulators have the power they need to respond to changing priorities.

“It will also require water companies to provide continuous monitoring of storm overflows which will greatly assist with understanding the environmental impact of these systems – and ensure necessary and targeted improvements.”

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