England’s Raw Sewage Spills ‘More Than Double In 2023’

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Despite the fact that the dire state of the nation’s rivers, lakes and streams hits headlines on a daily basis, despite the fact that there has been a very intense public outcry about the use of combined sewer overflows and despite the fact that crackdown after crackdown has been announced by the government, it seems that water suppliers around the country are still not getting the message, with official figures now showing that sewage spills more than doubled in 2023.


Environment Agency stats show that there were 3.6 million hours of spills last year, compared to the 1.75 million hours seen in 2022, averaging out to 1,271 spills each day around the country, up from the 825 recorded during the previous 12 months, the BBC reports.


The UK’s combined sewer overflow (CSO) system forms a necessary part of the overall sewage system, making up hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipework, allowing clean rainwater and wastewater from kitchens, bathrooms and toilets to be transported in the same pipes all the way to local sewage treatment works.


During periods of heavy rainfall, the network’s capacity can be put under excessive amounts of pressure, which means there’s a risk that sewage can back up into homes and businesses, as well as roads and other open spaces.


As such, this excess needs somewhere to go, which is why combined sewer overflows were designed to reduce the risks.


Discharge activity on the part of water suppliers is legally permitted under certain circumstances, with the Environment Agency working closely with companies to ensure that they’re monitored closely and that discharge activity is reported.


However, permit breaches seem to have been on the rise over the last few years, with the CSO system in use even when heavy rainfall hasn’t been seen… known as dry spills.


These latest Environment Agency figures have been described by Water UK, the industry organisation for sewerage companies, as “unacceptable”, but added that these record levels were because of heavy rain.


Last year, the trade body announced that £10 billion would be invested to upgrade sewage infrastructure, although these plans need to have Ofwat approval before they can be greenlit.


Water UK has now called on the government to bring the decision on this forward, as well as accelerating plans such as banning wet wipes to help prevent blocked drains and make a significant difference to the number of spills that take place.


The wet wipe ban was initially proposed six years ago, so the question must be asked as to just why it’s taking the government so long to push it through.


It was expected that the overall number of spills would be higher because of the volume of rainfall seen in 2023 – 20 per cent above average, in fact. Furthermore, all 15,000 CSOs have now been fitted with monitors, so recording of spills is also now at an all-time high.


However, critics have spoken out about the fact that necessary infrastructure upgrades have not taken place over the last few years, with the ageing network becoming increasingly unable to cope.


When you take into account the fact that climate change will increase the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events like drought and flooding, these upgrades will only become more important as time goes on.


CEO of charity River Action James Wallace explained to the BBC that this high level of spillage is unsurprising, in large part because regulators are not overseeing matters appropriately.


He said: “Water companies are not being made to invest in fixing their leaky pipes. As long as we have an Environment Agency and Ofwat that are incapable of doing their jobs, then we are not in a position to expect water companies to behave.”


What action is being taken?


The last few years have seen the government implement certain strategies to tackle the issue of pollution and sewage spills.


Alongside monitoring of the entire CSO network, a Storm Overflows Taskforce has been set up to increase transparency around the use of overflows, while water companies now also face unlimited fines for pollution incidents, with the resulting funds used to help clean up waterways around the country.


This comes under the new Plan for Water, which will also see companies subject to criminal prosecution for the worst cases of pollution.


This, indeed, may well prove to be more of a deterrent than imposing financial penalties, given the fact that Southern Water was given a record £90 million fine in 2021 but is still putting the environment at risk, most recently receiving a £330,000 fine in February this year for a serious stream pollution incident.


Whistleblowing may also help to hold water companies to account, something that the Environment Agency is now prioritising, with a new portal launched on March 26th to make it easier for internal whistleblowers to report serious environmental damage by the companies they work for.


Staff members are now being encouraged to alert the agency of any wrongdoings, with cases reviewed by expert intelligence teams and the identities of reporters fully protected as confidential sources of information.


Agency chair Alan Lovell said: “We share the public’s disgust with sewage pollution and know there’s always more that can be done to protect our waterways.


“This new whistleblowing portal allows workers to raise their concerns and we encourage people to come forward, knowing any information will be treated in confidence and with sensitivity.


“The more evidence we have to identify potential criminality, then the more actions we can take to make lasting improvements to our environment.”


While such strategies are to be commended, it remains to be seen just how seriously water companies will take the potential consequences, as it certainly seems as though they’ve been very cavalier about enforcement in the past.


Currently, it is very much a case of “watch this space”.


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