Untreated sewage can be devastating to human health, local biodiversity and our environment which is why we have been clear that water companies must take urgent action to address sewage discharges.
Some parts of England saw surface water flooding last week, as rain fell on very hard ground after weeks of prolonged dry weather. Water quality was temporarily affected in some areas as a result, reinforcing the need for robust action from water companies to reduce discharges from storm overflows.
That’s why we are already taking action. We are the first Government to set an expectation on water companies to significantly reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows.
The Strategic Policy Statement, laid in Parliament in February, sets out to Ofwat - the water regulator - our 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.
During the passage of the Environment Act through parliament last year, we announced measures that put this commitment on a statutory footing – enshrining our position in law. This will categorically reduce the amount of untreated sewage in our waters and means water companies must reduce the operation of storm overflows. This sits alongside a raft of new laws in the Environment Act to significantly reduce the use of storm overflows.
We also recently consulted on our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which will revolutionise how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage. The plan proposes the most significant infrastructure programme to recover the environment in water company history. 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.
Water Minister Steve Double said:
We are the first government to take action to tackle sewage overflows. We have been clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable and they must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority.
This is on top of ambitious action we have already taken including consulting on targets to improve water quality which will act as a powerful tool to deliver cleaner water, pushing all water companies to go further and faster to fix overflows.
Work on tackling sewage overflows continues at pace and we will publish our plan in line with the 1 September statutory deadline.
The Environment Agency have also significantly driven up monitoring and transparency from water companies and will not hesitate to act to eliminate the harm sewage discharges cause to the environment and hold companies to account where they fall below the minimum standards. They have:
- Increased the number of overflows monitored across the network 15-fold - from 800 in 2016 to more than 12,000 in 2020. All 15,000 overflows will have them by the end of 2023. The vast majority of monitors (87%) operated for more than 90% of the time last year (2021).
- Asked companies to install new flow monitors on more than 2,000 wastewater treatment works to identify what is happening at those works during the sewage treatment process itself. This has led to a major investigation, announced in November 2021, with the EA requesting more detailed data from all wastewater treatment works.
- Agreed to increase transparency around when and how storm overflows are used through the work of the Storm Overflows Taskforce – made up of Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water, Blueprint for Water and Water UK
- Respond to all serious pollution incidents and where offences are identified, these are investigated and enforcement action taken in line with the Environment Agency Enforcement and Sanctions Policy.
The EA are monitoring the current situation and supporting local authorities where needed.
When the potential for a temporary reduction in water quality is forecast, a pollution risk warning is issued with advice against bathing.
You can find daily pollution risk forecasts throughout the bathing water season at the EA’s Swimfo website.