Wet wipes from sewage spill in river

Where’s there’s muck…

Christine Colvin, Director of Partnerships and Communications, writes about the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan. 

Emily Cooper


Where there’s muck…

There is much ado about sewage at the moment. It’s a grotty topic, and the consequences of sewage pollution are revolting: murky waters, sewage fungus and a host of hideous diseases. But now that England has committed to cleaning up the whole sorry mess, there’s actually a golden opportunity to do things differently. Even do-do’s.

Where now there’s muck, we could have brass.

On the day the latest sewage data was released—bought into eye-watering focus on our map—the government released a plan to fix up the problem. And if the invitation to comment on the ‘Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan’ sounds about as dull as dishwater – don’t be fooled! This is your chance to change the course of history! We’re going to need to grab this chance with both hands because, sadly, government hasn’t.

This plan as it now stands will stop ecological harm from storm and sewage spills. Hoorah! Oh no, hold on - by 2050… The timescale of this plan is strangely out of sync with the government’s own thinking on helping nature to recover and cleaning up pollution. As everyone else is #Racing2NetZero, putting pedal to the metal for a virtuous purpose and roaring in a spin for the circular economy… we have a plan to slowly, slowly remedy polluting overspills one by one by one.

Surely these things are difficult to fix? It will take time. Well, yes. But even within the water sector’s careful/glacial planning and spending cycles, the water companies themselves are already committing to stopping the problem earlier. Anglian Water has said that there will be no rivers failing ecological health due to their operations by 2030. Only 8 years away. Not the 28 years given as a deadline in this plan.

England in 28 years’ time will be a very different place. We will no doubt be reeling from the impacts of the climate crisis, with sea-level rise, floods and droughts a more regular occurrence. Polluted waterways could become No-Go areas, where the hotter temperatures have allowed algae and cyanobacteria to flourish, creating dead-zones with no oxygen and poisonous toxins. Time is not on our side.

This plan is not only too slow, it’s too narrow in its focus. It gives three targets for water companies to stop sewage spills. But government needs to do much more than that. If we are going to stop the problem, we need to stop as much storm water from getting into our sewers in the first place. This means government needs to set targets for itself and for Local Authorities to enable our towns and new developments to be planned differently. We could make sure these plans address more of our needs – for more green space, more nature, more shade, more water infiltrating locally to soil and aquifers rather than being fast-tracked into sewers. We need to slow the flow. And we need to do that fast.

This plan could be a golden opportunity for government to start fast-tracking a radical rethink of our neighbourhoods, towns and highways. We want our rivers to be the arteries of nature’s recovery in England and help to buffer us against our inevitable climate shocks. Setting targets for government to do what it has been recommending to itself for years, could set us on the right road, at the right speed. The Environmental Audit Committee has told government in no uncertain terms what is needed, and this plan falls far short.

Let’s find the brass in all this muck. Let’s respond to this consultation. You don’t need to be an expert, and it only requires 10 minutes of your time. We want a bold and ambitious plan that deals with the root causes of the problem. In our lifetimes. Your voice has the power to make that happen. Let’s hear it.

Speak up for rivers

Let the Government know what you think about their plan to reduce sewage spills

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