Ofwat dilutes language on stopping sewage spill water pollution

More weasel words – Owl

The water regulator for England and Wales has weakened its language around how utility companies spill sewage pollution in future, prompting claims it is toothless.

Adam Vaughan, Environment Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

Ofwat has begun drafting standards for water companies governing how they protect the environment and how they perform between 2025 and 2030.

These “performance commitments” include definitions on storm overflows, which act as emergency valves for the sewage network during heavy rainfall and spill untreated sewage into rivers and seas. Companies are permitted to dump sewage this way to prevent it backing up into homes, but there has been public outrage at the number of spills. There were 372,000 spills in 2021.

In Ofwat’s definition of storm overflows, the original version said that reducing spills from them “helps to ensure that storm overflows are used by exception, rather than as a norm”. However, in an amended version published in December, the reference has been removed.

Such language is important because the use of storm overflows to spill sewage is the norm today by design, but has become seen as increasingly unacceptable. The government has set companies targets to curb them that will cost an estimated £56 billion.

The original Ofwat text also included a statement that “fewer and less frequent discharges” would help public health and the environment. This language is cut in the amended version.

The total number of storm overflow spills grew from about 13,000 in 2016 to about 404,000 in 2020, mirroring an increase in monitoring. It fell about 8 per cent in 2021, but whether that decrease continued last year will not be known until late next month when new figures are released.

In the meantime campaigners have identified 143 occasions between October 2021 and September last year when “dry spills” occurred. Companies are permitted to discharge untreated sewage during heavy rainfall, but not when conditions are dry.

Although highly visible, storm overflow spills are not the biggest source of pollution from water companies: a greater contribution comes from their sewage treatment works. Another Ofwat document, on river water quality related to phosphorus pollution from sewage treatment works and farms, dropped a passage on the benefits of curbing the pollutant.

The original text spoke of “encouraging water companies to limit adverse impacts on the water environment and demonstrate how they are contributing to tangible progress towards good ecological status of water bodies as part of their statutory functions”. The sentence was struck out in the version published in December.

Meanwhile, a document on flooding on private properties and land outside water companies’ networks, caused by sewers run by the companies, cut the suggestion that reducing the floods also curbed “negative social impacts”.

Ofwat said it expected the language of the definitions to be updated in April, reflecting feedback from stakeholders. The regulator added that it did not expect the December changes to affect any targets it set for water companies from 2025 to 2030.

Labour claimed that the edits showed Ofwat was toothless. “Our lakes, rivers and sea have been turned into an open sewer and the water regulator has been caught red-handed rewriting the rules given to water companies,” Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary, said. “The Conservatives have given the green light to further sewage dumping, and tried to minimise its impact on communities and local businesses dependent on tourism and leisure.”

The Times recently launched Clean It Up, a campaign calling for more robust regulation of the water sector and faster investment tackling storm overflow spills.

In an apparent nod to the campaign, the outgoing head of the other main regulator for the water sector in England, the Environment Agency, this week said that water pollution had garnered “huge media attention, particularly at the moment”.

Sir James Bevan, in a speech at the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit, conceded that progress on improving the water quality of rivers had slowed in recent years and even stopped in some cases.

However, he insisted progress was being made and argued some discussion of the issue had not been grounded in reality. “All I would say is let’s have this debate on the basis of the facts not assertions — and there are some wild assertions, myths and outright untruths flying around,” he said.