Water firms must pay to keep rivers free of sewage

Remember that both Simon Jupp and Neil Parish dutifully voted last October against the Lords amendment imposing legal duties on water companies to clean up their act. – Owl

Ben Webster www.thetimes.co.uk 

Water companies will be required to increase investment to prevent raw sewage spilling into rivers and the sea under a new government strategy for the sector that places greater focus on the environment.

The strategic policy statement being laid in parliament today sets the priorities for Ofwat, the water regulator, and water companies and will affect spending for the period from 2025 to 2030.

It says that water companies will be expected to “significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows, so they operate infrequently, and only in cases of unusually heavy rainfall. We expect overflows that do the most harm or impact on the most sensitive and highest amenity sites to be prioritised.”

Water companies have collectively cut investment in wastewater and sewage networks by almost a fifth in the 30 years since they were privatised, according to analysis of official data published in December.

They discharged raw sewage into rivers more than 400,000 times last year. They are permitted to spill sewage from storm overflows after heavy rainfall but many spills occur after dry weather and are illegal.

The strategic policy statement says: “The water industry’s environmental performance has stagnated and, in certain cases, deteriorated in recent years. Poor environmental performance is not acceptable and poorly performing companies need to rapidly improve.”

Water companies may seek to increase household water bills to fund the extra investment but an Ofwat source said it would press them to cover the cost by operating more efficiently.

The companies are collectively investing £3.1 billion in storm overflows in 2020-25.

Under the Environment Act, the government is required to publish a plan to reduce sewage discharges from England’s 15,000 storm overflows by September this year.

The policy statement also gives greater priority to addressing excessive abstraction of water from rivers, protecting chalk streams, and ensuring that water companies produce drainage plans that reduce the risk of homes being flooded.

The Angling Trust said the statement “could have been braver and bolder” and it was unclear how much improvement it would bring about in the state of rivers.

Ash Smith, of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, which has led the way in exposing illegal sewage spills, said: “This announcement is no more than window dressing to buy time for regulators and an industry that has been forced under the spotlight and is rapidly running out of excuses for profiting while allowing our vital infrastructure to fall into a black hole, reliant on illegal pollution to cope with under-investment over decades.”

Rebecca Pow, the environment minister, said: “We are the first government to set a clear expectation that Ofwat should prioritise action by water companies to protect the environment and deliver the improvements that we all want to see. I have been very clear of my expectations of water companies and where they do not step up we will take robust action.

“The priorities that we are setting out today build on the work that we have already undertaken to reduce harm from storm overflows, improve monitoring and reporting of pollution incidents making this more transparent, to tackle run-off from agriculture, and protect the health of our rivers and seas.”

An Ofwat spokesman said: “We will continue to allow significant investment in the environment, take action on companies that fall short on their performance and drive them to be more transparent on their delivery and impact on rivers.”

2 thoughts on “Water firms must pay to keep rivers free of sewage

  1. At last water companies will be required to increase investment to prevent raw sewage spilling into rivers and the sea. ( Or as Bumsrush so rightly writes that we all will pay with increased charges) However, we will have to wait until 2025 for this to start. Meanwhile dividends and bonuses for directors will continue to flourish as otters and beavers suffer in sewage and the people swim in polluted water in Budleigh Salterton bay. (623 hours from 83 episodes in 2020). And, of course the Environment Agency say it has been cut back to such an extent that they cannot do their jobs and the regulator is no longer a deterrent to polluters.

    How is it then that a £15 million scheme, the EU-funded Lower Otter Restoration Project (LORP) to reconnect the River Otter to its historic floodplain and return the lower Otter Valley to a more natural condition can include the diversion of the combined sewer overflow pipe at the Otter mouth so that this horrendous outpouring of raw sewage can continue? I am also astounded that it will be primarily funded by the LORP project even though SWW will deliver. This will retain the status quo of discharging raw sewage into the sea and presumably continue for years to come. Surely the money could have been better spent creating a system to eliminate the need for tourists to swim in poo.

    The water companies always blame the overspill discharges on the Victorian pipes but Budleigh’s sewage system was replaced in the 1980s. Obviously the system had no future proofing. and should have been upgraded along the 30 odd years.


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