The issue – why is it relevant to the work of The Rivers Trust.

According to data given by the water companies to the Environment Agency (EA), water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters across England more than 372,000 times in 2021 for a combined total of 2.6 million hours, via storm overflow (SO) pipes, also known as Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). Combining raw sewage with other pollutants in rainfall runoff from pavements and roads, these overflows discharge a very wide range of contaminants such as faecal pathogens (including bacteria resistant to antibiotics), industrial chemicals, personal care products, pharmaceuticals, microplastics, heavy metals, oils and solids such as wetwipes. This cocktail of chemicals discharged to our rivers has negative impacts including:

  • Risk to public health through contact recreation in rivers, lakes and coastal waters
  • Contamination of shellfisheries in estuarine waters
  • Chronic and acute effects upon aquatic wildlife.

89% of the current CSO network was monitored in 2021. There are nearly 15,000 storm overflows in England and the impacts of climate change mean that we are already seeing more frequent and intense rainfall events. This, coupled with population growth which increases the stress on the sewage network, increased urban sprawl which generates more runoff into drains, rather than natural infiltration through soil, along with underinvestment in sewage infrastructure, has resulted in these high levels of untreated sewage spills.

What are the contentious aspects?

CSOs have been seen by the water sector as a necessary ‘safety valve’ in the sewer system to prevent sewage backing up and discharging via toilets into peoples’ homes during periods of extreme rainfall. However, in the last year more evidence has been presented (e.g. to the Environmental Audit Committee) that indicates that CSOs are being used routinely by water companies even when there is no rainfall, and not only during ‘extreme rainfall events’ which is when they may be used.

There has been a lot of disagreement between experts within the water sector on the degree to which CSOs are being used within their permitted conditions, and to what extent they have been abused as a cheap alternative to treating sewage.

As more of the CSO network has been monitored and better data has become available, it has become clearer that the frequency with which CSOs are now used is unacceptable and is the result of a widespread failure of governance, regulation and underinvestment in key assets. A taskforce was set up by Defra to address the issue, but since the promulgation of the Environment Act at the end of 2021, and the subsequent release of the government’s Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan for public consultation, the taskforce has not been active. The government’s plan aims to reduce the number of spills, prioritising ecological sites first, but would result in CSO spills reduced to acceptable levels (under 10 per year per site) only by 2050. The Rivers Trust, along with other NGOs in Blueprint, and many members of the general public said that this timeline was too long, and doesn’t recognise the urgency of the issue.

A key contention is how much it will cost to fix this problem, and how much of that cost should be passed on to water consumers, given that there has been inadequate investment in the past to keep up with demands on the sewage network. Another issue is the integrity of the data on spill events, given that all of it is self-reported to the EA by the water companies.

What are we doing about this issue?

The Rivers Trust has been very active on the issue of sewage pollution and the use of CSOs. For the last 3 years we have published our Sewage Map which has helped to bring data, evidence and transparency to the fore in the public discussions and concern about sewage pollution, and we will continue to do so. We have participated in Defra’s taskforce on CSOs and continue to push for urgent solutions to sewage pollution, as well a better engagement with the public.

During the drafting of the Environment Act we worked closely with peers and other parliamentarians to strengthen the clauses in the Bill relating to CSOs. There is now a chapter in the Environment Act on Storm Overflows which requires the Secretary of State to produce a plan by September 2022 to ensure the progressive reduction of pollution from storm overflows. We have criticised the initial version of the government’s plan, saying that it delivers too little, too late and we have briefed parliament on what we would like to see in the final plan.

What is our position?

The Rivers Trust wants to see more effective regulation of the water companies to ensure that CSOs are used legally and within their permit conditions. We engage with parliamentarians and government departments to push for better accountability, enforcement of the law and adequate funding on the Environment Agency to ensure they are resourced to do a competent job.

We have played a critical role in bringing greater transparency to this issue and we continue to push for better monitoring, public access to near real-time data on sewage releases and more independent data collection by member trusts, CaBA partners and citizen scientists.

We acknowledge that excessive CSO releases are a consequence of complex upstream problems, including urbanisation, poor urban design and changing rainfall regimes. We want to see the problems solved upstream, working with nature, particularly nature-based solutions. We are pushing to see more of these implemented and mainstreamed, and we are working with government and water companies to ensure that natural flood management, sustainable drainage and urban wetlands can be effectively incorporated into resilient cities and towns in the future.

We want to see the government publishing an ambitious and urgent plan of action in September 2022 to address CSOs. Along with other NGOs in Blueprint, we are asking for:

  • 100% of SOs in priority areas not causing ecological harm by 2030;
  • 70% by 2035 and 100% by 2040 of all SOs not exceeding ten spills per annum under exceptional rainfall events.
  • Additional targets for the government to address the root causes of excess storm overflows: milestones to implement Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act by 2023; An assessment of the recommendations of the EAC report and responses with targets; sufficient resourcing of the EA to ensure follow-through on the investigation of 2,200 sewage treatment works currently underway and to monitor progress and compliance with the Water Act and Environment Act in the next decade as we attempt to clean up our rivers; a clear roadmap with milestones and targets for implementing overdue integration of Drainage Water Management Plans with other planning mechanisms to accelerate our climate adaptation, recovery of nature with SuDs and Nature Based Solutions, access to green and blue spaces; clear targets to increase the number of river bathing waters to ensure inland water users are given access to the same water quality public health standards as those on the coast.
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