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Storm Overflows Taskforce sets goal to end pollution from storm overflows

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A beach in Cornwall with swimmers

There has been coverage in the Guardian and Press Association today about the latest update from the Storm Overflows Taskforce, which has announced collective agreement on a long term goal to end pollution from storm overflows.

Following recommendations from the Taskforce – made up of Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water, Blueprint for Water and Water UK – water companies will also increase transparency around when and how storm overflows are used.

Water companies have agreed to make real-time data on sewage discharges available at bathing sites all year round, meaning surfers, swimmers and other water users can check the latest information – especially after heavy rainfall. They will also accelerate work to install monitoring devices to create a complete picture of their activity by 2023.

The Taskforce has agreed with water companies that they will publish annual monitoring data on their websites about their use of storm overflows so that progress in reducing their use can be tracked. The Environment Agency will compile this data into an annual report that is easily accessible to the public.

The announcement comes as the Government has also confirmed it is working with Philip Dunne MP on our shared ambitions to tackle sewage pollution in our rivers.

Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow, said:

I have been shocked to discover the extent of sewage routinely spilled in our rivers. Poor water quality has a very damaging impact on aquatic species which depend on clean rivers, and risks healthy enjoyment of our rivers by the public.

I am really pleased this Government has recognised that this has got to change. I am delighted the Minister has responded so quickly to Covid restrictions interrupting progress of my Private Members Bill by agreeing to work with me to develop measures to improve water quality across England.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said:

Making sure we have clean rivers is an absolute priority and I have been clear that I want to cut down on the water sector’s reliance on storm overflows.

The Storm Overflows Taskforce, established last year, is working urgently on options to tackle this issue, which demonstrates a collective commitment for change in this critical area.

Our ambitious Environment Bill already sets out how we will tackle various sources of water pollution. I look forward to working with Philip Dunne and others on how we can accelerate progress in this area.

Storm overflows were designed to be used during extreme weather to prevent sewers becoming overloaded with a combination of sewage and rainwater, releasing diluted wastewater into rivers rather than letting it back up into people’s homes. However climate change has led to increased rainfall and water infrastructure has not kept pace with development growth over decades.

The Storm Overflows Taskforce was set up in August 2020 to bring together water companies, regulators and environmental NGOs to accelerate progress in this area, building on work already underway to improve our rivers and waterways. Its work covers a series of short, medium and long-term actions focused on the goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows – a generational endeavour that will involve significant change and take time to achieve.

Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said:

Publishing easily accessible data is an important step to reversing the overuse of storm overflows, but disclosure is only ever the beginning. People want to see progress.

Water quality in England’s 240,631 kilometres of river is everyone’s responsibility but water companies have a pivotal role in helping the whole country make the necessary big changes. We look forward to working with them, as well as government and MPs, to turn today’s ambition into action.

John Russell, Senior Director at Ofwat said:

The work of the Storm Overflows Taskforce will play a crucial role in protecting precious parts of our ecosystem.

We are committed to working with Government, regulators and the water industry to meet this challenge and ensure that we leave our rivers in a healthier condition for current and future generations. We also recognise that this is a multi-faceted issue which needs cross-sectoral solutions and behavioural changes as well.

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  1. Comment by John Baxter posted on

    Putting more hawkeyes on storm overflow drains will not bring about the post storm visual inevitability of finding all the materials from sewers that should have been screened prior to discharge as the sewers are flushed.
    More and larger retention tanks along with better screening capacity at pump stations would alleviate the excessive need to use combined sewer overflows and allow waste water treatment works, again with enhanced retention capacity, to treat inflows to a more acceptable level other than unscreened,and untreated effluent.
    On springfed watercourses dilution of effluent is less effective than others as springfed watercourses do not rise at the same rate as others during storms so requiring enhanced protection.