Today (Saturday 25 June) the Telegraph has published an opinion piece on the importance of water quality to public health, written by: Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sir Chris Whitty; Chair of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd; and Ofwat Chair, Jonson Cox.
The joint article highlights that while no one expects river water to be of drinking standard, there is a serious public health risk resulting from raw sewage from storm overflows being released into our waterways.
Protecting and enhancing our nation’s water environment is a priority for this government, which was the first to set out an expectation that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce the harm from storm overflows.
We are taking bold and ambitious action to tackle this issue and improve the quality of all our waterways:
- The Government is consulting on targets to improve water quality, reduce nutrient pollution and reduce pollution by metals from abandoned mines. These targets will act as powerful tools to deliver cleaner water, pushing all water companies to go further and faster to fix overflows, and helping to generate the most significant investment ever undertaken by water companies to revolutionise our sewer system.
- The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan Consultation, launched in April, will revolutionise how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage. Under the plans, water companies will face strict limits on when they can use storm overflows and must completely eliminate the harm sewage discharges cause to the environment.
- The Strategic Policy Statement (SPS), which was laid in Parliament in February, sets out to Ofwat as the economic regulator its expectations for the sector over the next five year spending cycle and beyond. It makes clear that Ofwat and water companies should prioritise action on the environment, deliver a resilient and sustainable water supply, and significantly reduce the frequency and volume of discharges from storm overflows.
- The government’s Environment Act includes a duty on the government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows; duties on water companies; and a power of direction for the Government to direct water companies in relation to Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans.
Between 2020 and 2025, water companies are investing £7.1 billion to protect and improve the environment. Of this, £3.1 billion is already being invested specifically in storm overflow improvements to 800 overflows. Protected sites and bath areas are the initial priorities.
But we will continue to hold all water companies to account and will not hesitate to act if necessary. Since 2015 the Environment Agency has brought 48 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of over £137 million. Last year, the Environment Agency and Ofwat launched a major investigation based on evidence that some water companies in England may not be complying with their permits, resulting in excess sewage spills into the environment, even in dry periods. Five water companies have been put on notice to provide documentation for detailed analysis and all companies are under investigation; action will be taken if non-compliance is discovered.
The opinion piece also highlighted the impact that wet wipes and other items flushed down toilets, and fats poured down drains, can block sewers and cause avoidable use of storm overflows. Earlier this year the government launched a call for evidence on wet wipes, including new standards for these products to prevent dangerous pollution being flushed down our toilets and ending up in our rivers or littering our beaches. There was a significant response to this call for evidence and we are currently reviewing those responses.