Annual Water Quality Report from Surfers Against Sewage finds that water companies are continuing to pollute waterways at an increasing rate

Water companies are discharging sewage into our waterways at an increasing rate, according to the Surfers Against Sewage 2021 Water Quality Report.

The report, which was published today by the marine conservation charity, found that water companies discharged sewage into the local environment affecting designated bathing areas 5,517 times over the last 12 months, representing an increase of over 87 per cent.

Only 14 per cent of UK rivers are considered to have ‘good’ ecological status, while six out of eight rivers pose a continuous serious risk to human health, the report finds.

“The findings of our report are shocking and outrageous, but they are by no means unexpected,” said Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage.

“The fact is, water companies continue to increase profits whilst causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequences. Instead, eyewatering sums of money are paid out in dividends to investors and huge pay packets are enjoyed by CEOs. Why should ordinary people bear the brunt of this greed whilst providers continue to decimate our natural environment?”

Water companies issued alerts over sewage discharges in designated bathing areas over 3,000 times during the official bathing season, from May to September 2021. One in six days were rendered ‘unswimmable’ owing to sewage pollution during the season, the report found.

Commenting on the findings of the report, Luke Pollard, Labour’s shadow environment secretary said: “It’s clear that water companies are routinely dumping sewage and that the government’s weak measures will simply allow them to carry on. The system is broken with billions of profits being made for shareholders while the water companies do far too little to stop sewage dumping. Labour will continue to campaign for an end to sewage dumping to clean up our rivers, lakes and seas.”

The report follows news earlier this week that Ofwat and the Environment Agency have launched an investigation into thousands of sewage treatment works and water companies over illegal sewage spills. The investigation aims to uncover the extent to which water companies are permitting sewage overflows in waterways, without having treated the maximum amount of wastewater at their plants.

Southern Water – which was hit with a record £90m fine over historic water pollution – issued nearly 2,000 sewage discharge notifications during this year’s bathing season, according to the report.

Surfers Against Sewage revealed that almost 30 per cent of the 286 health reports submitted to them came from Southern Water’s operating area.

Public outrage over sewage spills resulted in MPs being targeted with thousands of emails calling for stronger legal requirements for water firms to tackle the problem as part of this autumn’s Environment Bill. In October, the government made a partial u-turn on an amendment to the Environment Bill, introducing a requirement for water companies to reduce sewage overflows in the next five years.

“The public outrage around the sewage amendments in the Environment Act show just how deeply people want action,” Tagholm said. “The government now states it has the legal tools to hold water companies to account – we will be watching and campaigning to make sure this is the case. The proof will be when sewage emissions are drastically reduced or eliminated, and our rivers and coastline meet the standards that the water industry should have helped deliver many years ago.”

The report also found that a higher average number of sewage overflow notifications were issued at locations classified as ‘excellent’ and ‘good’ than at locations classified ‘sufficient’ or ‘poor’, throwing into question the classification system used to designate bathing water quality.

Surfers Against Sewage collected data from citizen activists testing water quality where rivers flow into the sea near designated bathing areas and from its app Safer Seas & Rivers Service, where users can submit health reports. The report found 75 per cent of monitored sites had elevated E. coli levels and all of them had overall poor water quality. A third of reports of sickness after bathing were correlated with a pollution event in the corresponding area, the report found.

Responding to the report, a spokesperson for trade body Water UK, said: “water companies recognise the urgent need for action to protect and enhance our rivers and seas. Our recent 21st Century Rivers report sets out the key steps needed to achieve the radical changes we all want to see, including calling on government to bring forward legislation in a new Rivers Act that will provide greater protection for rivers in law.

“We know we need to go further and water companies want to invest more to improve infrastructure and stop harm from storm overflows and outfalls. With our coastal bathing waters we have a good base to build on with more than 70 per cent rated as ‘excellent’, and over 90 per cent as either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. This improvement has come about thanks to collaborative working between industry, government, regulators and other stakeholders over several years. Water companies don’t have all the answers and, to get the healthy, thriving rivers and seas that everyone wants, we’ll need to tap into this spirit of collaboration once again.”

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