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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.
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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.”
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.”