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Environment

Here’s why sewage is being dumped into seas and rivers – and what you can do about it

Water companies are dumping sewage into UK seas and rivers at an astonishing rate. Here’s why it’s happening – and how we can fix it.

Beach resorts across England and wales have been contaminated with sewage pollution in recent days as heavy rain punctuated a long heatwave.

Monitoring alerts revealed that sewage was discharged into the sea at more than 50 coastal locations, sparking anger from the public as images and videos of the spills appeared online.

The mass discharges come just weeks after calls from the Environment Agency called for water company bosses to face jail terms for repeated sewage spills in a report showing that companies are actually getting worse at tackling spills. 

The report showed that sewage spills hit their highest level since 2013 last year, with sewage spilling into England’s rivers over a period of 2.6 million hours in 2021 alone, without including spills into the sea. 

England is now one of the worst places in Europe when it comes to water quality, with just 14 per cent of rivers in “good” ecological condition

It’s not just sewage to blame. Rivers and seas are also being polluted with plastics, urban runoff and agricultural runoff.

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This toxic combination of pollution is harming aquatic life, and brewing potentially dangerous pathogens, experts have warned.

So how did things get so bad, and who’s to blame? We’ve rounded up everything you need to know about pollution in our waterways – and how we can start to resolve the problem.

Why is raw sewage being pumped into the sea?

If you’ve been shocked or confused by videos showing sewage pouring into the sea in recent days, you’re not alone. 

The simple explanation is that water infrastructure in the UK is poorly adapted for extreme weather conditions, meaning it gets overwhelmed easily.

Because we’ve had a period of hot weather followed by heavy rain, it’s more difficult for the ground to absorb rain water.

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This means that most of the rainwater has ended up in drains, overwhelming infrastructure. 

To prevent sewage backing up into people’s homes and businesses as a result, water companies discharge the excess water into waterways like the sea via sewage pipes.

The problem is, this also releases raw sewage and untreated waste. 

Who is responsible for pollution in rivers and seas?

Though no one person or body is responsible for pollution in England’s rivers and seas, water companies are responsible for the majority of sewage pollution.

For years, water companies have been dumping sewage into rivers and seas via sewage pipes known as “storm overflows”.

As suggested by their name, storm overflows are intended for use following extreme weather to prevent sewage backing up into homes and businesses. 

Data collected by citizen scientists, journalists and campaign groups, however, shows that sewage is regularly dumped during normal weather conditions. 

Many discharges have also happened illegally – without a permit – and water companies have been fined large sums of money for this in the past.

Yet it isn’t just sewage that’s wrecking water quality. Another key pollution source comes from intensive agriculture, which causes damaging “runoff” into rivers in particular

This occurs when rainwater running off from fields and buildings takes sediment, pesticides, fertiliser and faecal waste from animals into rivers and streams. 

Waste from chickens can be particularly harmful due to the high level of phosphates that it contains. 

When this waste ends up in water it creates green agal blooms which extract oxygen and lead to animal and plant life dying or struggling to survive. 

“Urban runoff” from cars is also impacting rivers and seas. This type of runoff comes from small plastic and other particles that are washed off of roads and cars when it rains. 

These plastics don’t just harm animal life – microplastics have also been found in humans, from our stomachs to our lungs.

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Just how polluted is our water?

Most coastal waters in England are designated as “bathing waters” which mean they must be tested to determine their quality.

However, the data provided by the Department of Environment and Rural Affairs doesn’t always give up-to-date estimates of water quality. 

Surfers against sewage are able to give a more up-to-date estimate of water quality at coastal locations with their online map.

When compared to EU bathing waters, England’s bathing waters are of very poor quality, coming last in a league table in 2020. 

The quality of rivers is even harder to determine as some pollutants are poorly or inaccurately measured, while some aren’t measured at all. 

Just one river, in Ilkley, is currently designated as a bathing water, and it has been designated as of “poor” quality.

However, event duration monitors fitted to overflow pipes can give us information about sewage pollution, with data showing how many times, and for how long sewage was discharged. 

The latest data from 2021 shows that spills occurred 372,533 times over the year, amounting to 2.6 million hours.

An investigation by the Guardian newspaper found that sewage was discharged into rivers 400,000 times in 2020 alone, sparking fury from campaigners.

Though it is not clear exactly how much pollution is in English rivers, indications of poor ecological health in all rivers suggests the level is dangerously high.

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What about Scotland? 

Scotland’s water isn’t privatised, and is instead is run by Scottish Water, a publicly-owned corporation which is answerable to Scottish ministers. 

In general, Scotland’s waterways are not as polluted as those in England and Wales when it comes to sewage.

However, this doesn’t mean Scotland is free of sewage pollution. In 2021, data showed that the number of sewage spills had increased by 40 per cent during the previous five years.

This represents the equivalent of 47,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of waste being discharged since 2016.

The total number of spills is much lower than in England, with a total of 12,725 spills recorded in Scotland in 2020 while roughly 400,000 incidents were recorded in England that year.

However, the true number of spills is likely to be much higher in both cases due to limited availability of data and poor monitoring.

Why is pollution still happening? 

Water companies say that outdated Victorian infrastructure and a growing population has created untenable pressure on the water system.

The infrastructure, they say, is unable to cope with the large volumes of material it has to process, with non-flushable waste products such as wet wipes making the problem even worse by blocking pipes.

Last year, water companies admitted that sewage pollution will likely continue for years to come due to the scale of investment needed. 

Campaigners have questioned claims that water companies lack the resources to update this infrastructure, however, with water bosses taking home large paychecks and significant sums paid out to shareholders in dividends.

Southern Water, Thames Water and Yorkshire Water all promised to stop paying dividends to shareholders following instruction from Ofwat to invest in infrastructure, but reneged on this promise soon afterwards. 

Authorities have similarly blamed a lack of investment in agriculture and the highways system for the continued problem of pollution via runoff. 

The Environment Agency has also called for higher fines for water companies who fail to protect rivers along with prison sentences for chief executives who oversee serious pollution events.

How can I find out how much pollution is in my river?

Though it’s more difficult to find out the level of general pollution in your river, you can find out how much sewage is in your local river. 

In an effort to aid transparency over sewage spills into rivers, the Rivers Trust has created a map using data from these event duration monitors which shows where and for how long sewage is being dumped into your river. 

You can type in your postcode or simply zoom into the map to see the location of spills near you. 

An online map from Surfers Against Sewage can show you where pollution alerts are in place at coastal locations.

What can I do about sewage pollution?

If you are concerned about the level of pollution in your river, you can join a local river campaign group or sign up to your local Rivers Trust group to help monitor and improve water quality, as well as raising awareness of the issue.

The Rivers Trust has a handy list of numbers you can call wherever you are in the UK to report any pollution incidents you see.

You could also consider writing to your MP, local farming association or water company about the issue. The Surfers Against Sewage Safer Seas app allows you to report a pollution incident directly to your MP.

If none currently exists, you could also consider starting your own local campaign group. Many existing groups will be happy to share advice with you on the best way to approach such a venture.

Campaign groups have been successful in securing some wins on water quality in recent years.

In Ilkley, a local campaign group secured the UK’s first bathing status award for a river, meaning the Environment Agency will be obliged to test the water more regularly and award it a rating of “excellent”, “good”, “sufficient” or “poor”.

The campaigners hope the ratings system will raise public awareness of the poor quality of river water in the UK. 

Two popular swimming areas in the Isle of Wight and the River Thames in Oxford are also set to become bathing waters under new consultation plans.

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