Tuesday, 05 April 2022 14:03

'Treading water' on raw sewage in rivers as last year's overflow stats revealed

Latest sewage statistics show water companies in England and Wales are treading water on sewage pollution and the Government's Defra's plan just threatens more stagnation, state The Rivers Trust as they update their popular online maps to display how Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs) are performing with raw sewage releases into your local waterways.

sewage map cso rivers trust 1The newly updated Sewage Map, plots the location, frequency and duration of untreated sewage discharges into English and Welsh waterways in 2021. The map aims to help the public understand the local relevance of data released by the Environment Agency and Welsh Water.

The Rivers Trust say although it's the 'crappiest map' it is important in understanding the national scale of our sewage pollution crisis, and point out it is the only free-to-access source that helps the public see where raw sewage pollution is happening in a map format.

The Trust state that yet again, shocking numbers for the level of sewage pollution from storm overflows in England and Wales show that water companies are barely starting to get to grips with the scale of the problem. The Environment Agency (EA) has shared the statistics showing how much raw sewage was released in England in 2021 - 2.66 million hours overall on 372,533 occasions.

This represents a small decrease on last year's numbers, which may be due to the slightly lower average rainfall overall in England in 2021. The average number of spills per monitored CSO declined by 4 spills p.a from 33 to 29. There is no information supplied which indicates why spills have declined, so this slight improvement can't be attributed to any particular drivers.

sewage map cso rivers trust 2More sites are monitored and that represents progress. In Wales there is 99% coverage of known overflows and in England we are now up to 89% (from 80% last year). The format of the reporting has also improved, making it easier to interpret and cross reference.

The EA summarises the reason for high spillers, where CSOs are spilling above a threshold of 60 times p.a. These are the worst performers in the system, and account for 16% of all CSOs (down from 19% in 2020). Water companies only know the reason for high levels of spills at 44% of those CSOs. And of those, only 2% (in Anglian and Southern Water) are due to exceptional weather. 29% were due to operational issues, which could encompass a broad range of things including inadequate maintenance. 70% were due to the hydraulic capacity of the system, in other words the sewer system cannot cope with the current waste water volumes. This indicates that 98% of the known reasons for very high unacceptable levels of spilling are due to poor management and under-investment in the sewer system. The numbers clearly support the claim that investment by water companies in our sewer system has lagged to the point that it is already not fit for purpose, much less ready for a future of climate extremes and further population growth.

Christine Colvin, Director for Partnerships & Communications, said: "The data that we've seen today serves to highlight the low level of ambition in the Consultation plan from Defra. The plan aims to improve 52% of storm overflows by 2040, so that they're not spilling more than 10 times per year. Today's EA data shows us that 40% are already recording 10 spills or less. We want to see much more ambition to reduce spills overall and protect sites that are important for people and wildlife."

The Rivers Trust will be scrutinising the Governments plan in detail in the coming weeks and encouraging wide participation in the consultation process, but in the meantime they have some initial comments on the headlines highlighted by Defra, stating: 'This plan is absolutely necessary to keep the sector on track, especially on the back of the public pressure that resulted in stronger measures in the Environment Act last year. However, this draft fails to set the pace and ambition for the water sector's response to this problem over the next two decades, so the public's response in this period of consultation is critical.' 

sewage map cso rivers trust 3Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust, said: "I'm disappointed that this plan lacks the urgency we so desperately need ....the target timelines in the plan are far too slow – I want to see this in my lifetime! Aiming to tackle only 52% of overflows by 2040 is unacceptable, we need more done sooner. Of course water company involvement is critical, but we need to see urgent and aligned targets for everyone with responsibilities in managing storm water, including local authorities and housing developers. Let's not forget that the problems with storm water management start with planning, and we need to tackle the problem at source." 

Christine Colvin, Director for Communications and Partnerships at The Rivers Trust: "We know we need a realistic plan that can be implemented progressively, however, the timelines given here are slower than the commitments that some of the water companies have already made. United Utilities have already committed to reducing spills by a third by 2025 and Anglian Water have committed to reducing all discharges to less than 20 per CSO per year by 2025. This plan only aims to improve 14% of overflows by 2030 – it's far too slow, and our rivers don't have that window to survive current levels of pollution. We want to see government leading not lagging, and we will give detailed feedback to strengthen it substantially before it goes to parliament in September."


The Rivers Trust's Sewage Map can be found at:

The government's Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan is at:

The State of our Rivers is summarised at:

Water company commitments