Sewage in rivers - update

Update May 2023

The water industry has today (18 May) announced its intention, pending Ofwat approval, to invest £10bn in updating England’s sewage plumbing

This could be really good and long overdue news, starting to put right 40 years of under-investment on infrastructure and consequent pollution of our rivers. 

There’s interesting coverage on Radio 4’s Today programme, including a reality check from Feargal Sharkey (1hr 18mins 47 secs in) and the industry body’s chair, Ruth Kelly of Water UK, putting its side of the story (2hrs 10mins in). Feargal very rightly questions why customers should pay again for what the industry has been legally obliged to do all along and asks how this plan is distinguished from all the other recent announcements of increased investment.

There’s also an interesting read in this recent Financial Times article that sheds some light on the fiscal dealings of the water industry. 

Update January 2023

Thames Water have published a map of storm discharge data from Event Duration Monitoring (EDM). The maps shows when overflows are currently discharging into a watercourse and the date and time of the last recorded discharge.

Is the water quality in our rivers getting worse or better? This paper reviews the data and summarises the situation: 

  • Water quality in British rivers has changed substantially since the industrial revolution.
  • Between 1760 and 1940 point-source pressures are likely to have increased.
  • From 1940 pressures from nutrients and pesticides have increased in many areas
  • The current picture is mixed: urban quality has improved, rural quality has declined.
  • Diffuse-source pollution and novel pollutants remain as significant water quality threats.

Update December 2022

The Government have (two months late) announced legally binding environment targets. Conservation and fishery organisations have expressed their disappointment that the targets are not ambitious and do not address the health of our rivers. See, for example, comments from the Wildlife Trust and the Angling Trust.

Update August 2022

Defra have issued a revised storm overflows (CSO) reduction plan.
The community campaigning against sewage are generally underwhelmed, saying it is still too little too late. This summary by the Rivers Trust is more positive than most!

Update July 2022

The EA in England have published their report on water company environmental performance for 2021.Emma Howard Boyd, outgoing Chair of the EA, is highly critical of water company performance, saying ‘the sector’s performance on pollution was shocking, much worse than previous years.’

Update June 2022

Not sewage this time but agricultural pollution. The Farming Rules for Water were the subject of 'guidance' issued by Defra in March 2022. The guidance was challenged by S&TC and revised in June 2022. More details in our news item. 

Update April 2022

The Government have issued a response to the Environment Audit Committee Report on water quality in rivers. The reaction of groups campaigning on this topic has been disappointment (to put it mildly). For example the Angling Trust say: 

(The) response fails to provide any reassurance that the government understands the depth of the problems our rivers face or the urgency around the need to take action.’

February 2022

The last 18 months or so have seen some very intense campaigning about sewage pollution in our rivers, particularly in England, with water companies, the EA, Ofwat and the Government all coming under fire.

This blog post attempts a round-up of the current status and complements a previous blog post from April / November 2021; it is an incredibly complex picture. 


NGOs including the Angling Trust, Rivers Trust, Salmon and Trout Conservation and Surfers Against Sewage, many local groups such as Ilkley Clean River Group and Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) and high-profile individuals like Feargal Sharkey have been campaigning hard against sewage in our rivers, both from an ecological impact point of view and increasingly from that of wild swimming and paddling. For example, the Rivers Trust have an interactive map to help answer the question is my river fit to play in’ and the Ilkely group’s primary focus is on bathing water.

For more background on Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) which are discharging sewage, see the previous blog post.

What are the results so far?

In summary, there is great deal of campaigning activity: media coverage (especially in The Guardian and the BBC) and reports and investigations taking place in some of the organisations that can make a difference (Government, Defra, the EA, Ofwat for example). There is (pretty much) widespread agreement that something must be done’, but we haven’t yet seen any evidence that there is any material difference to the amount of sewage entering our rivers. 

Government Response

The Environment Bill, applicable to England but with some provisions for the devolved nations, provided an opportunity to include tighter controls on sewage pollution, and an Amendment was proposed by the Duke of Wellington to eliminate, not simply reduce, sewage pollution. The Amendment was defeated but an alternative amendment was included in the final Act which many NGOs and the media claimed was watered down’. Defra’s response to this accusation is here.

The Environment Audit Committee (EAC), chaired by Phillip Dunne MP, heard oral evidence from a range of experts (much of it extremely good and worth listening to) and in January 2022 produced this report. The report was damning (‘It is clear…..that rivers in England are in a mess’) and wide ranging, including not only sewage but pollution by farming (pesticides, sediment, nutrients, manure), plastics, synthetic chemicals and road runoff. EAC concluded that farming is a bigger polluter than sewage. Its report was widely welcomed – see, for example, this response from CIWEM.

Perhaps surprisingly, this was the response from the water company industry body, Water UK. They said We support the Committee’s urgent call for action to improve the health of England’s rivers’.

Preceding the Environment Act, Environment Minster Rebecca Pow MP announced a Storm Overflows Task Force which produced a report in November 2020, estimating the investment required for the complete separation of waste water and storm water: £600 billion. However, as this blog from Christine Colvin of the Rivers Trust says, this was scaremongering’ and Government itself has rowed back from that exaggerated estimate. 

Environment Agency response

A number of reports in The Guardian in January 2022 (for example, here) revealed the EA’s inability to effectively regulate the water industry or respond to pollution incidents: 
Staff at England’s 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.

The EA themselves have admitted that funding cuts have affected their ability to effectively enforce pollutions regulations. Emma Howard-Boyd, EA Chair, wrote to George Eustice (Secretary of State for Environment) in June 2021 saying: 
Over the last few years the drop in grant has forced us to reduce or stop work it used to fund, with real-world impacts (eg on our ability to protect water quality) for which we and the government are now facing mounting criticism.’

Campaigning group River Action set up a petition to double environmental protection budgets in England and Wales. They say: England’s Environment Agency’s environmental protection funding has been cut by 75% in the last decade’. As at 16 Feb 2022, the petition had 56,000 signatures. 

The EA have stated that they prioritise’ more severe pollution incidents and they do not have the funding to follow up all (or many?) incidents. For our water environment, the issue here is that such effectively unregulated pollution will produce chronic, damaging impacts for our rivers and lakes.

The EA have long been criticised by many campaigners for a lack of enforcement of existing regulations, preferring instead to advise and persuade (specifically with regard to farming and the Farming Rules for Water). Much of the compliance reporting of water companies and sewage pollution is carried out by the water companies themselves. Environment Minister Rebecca Pow stated in an interview with ENDS report that they won’t be self-monitoring anymore, we’ve dealt with that… we are absolutely cracking down’.

In November 2021, the EA started an investigation into sewage treatment works. This is a criminal investigation and will take some time (into 2023) before prosecutions take place. Clearly an investigation of this scale (2,200 STWs) with the intention of building evidence for criminal prosecutions will require significant resources. In parallel, Ofwat are also investigating the water companies’ performance.

On 22 February 2022, Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, made a speech with the title Myths, Facts and Inconvenient Truths’ to the World Water Tech Innovation Summit in which he said: Clean and plentiful water is everyone’s responsibility, not just mine or the water companies’.

Water companies

All the water companies in England come under fire for polluting rivers and beaches. 
For example, Southern Water were fined a record £90m after pleading guilty to unpermitted sewage discharges, and they are still polluting. Thames Water (along with the EA) are particularly targeted by active campaigner Feargal Sharkey. They have been fined millions of pounds numerous times for sewage pollution.

Their industry body, Water UK, agrees that it is time for a new approach’: Water companies agree there is an urgent need for action to tackle the harm caused to the environment by overflows. This report highlights the need for a new approach, which companies have also been calling for.’

NGO activities

Two locally based groups, Windrush Against Sewage Pollution and Ilkley Clean River Group are highly influential in different sections of the sewage campaigning space.

WASP uses the power of data to name and shame water companies and the EA in the media, and is getting responses from Defra, Water UK and Water Companies. 

Ilkley Clean River Group is focused on using Citizen Science to collect information that the EA do not. 

Both groups have inspired other local groups, especially those interested in wild swimming.

The Rivers Trust views sewage as one of a number of issues facing our rivers and is equally (if not more) concerned about agricultural pollution. They issued a report on The State of Our Rivers.

The Rivers Trust views sewage as one of a number of issues facing our rivers and is equally (if not more) concerned about agricultural pollution. They issued a report on The State of Our Rivers.

Salmon and Trout Conservation’s Guy Linley-Adams, has written an excellent report on how to fix the broken water sector in the UK. The report takes the form of a shadow’ strategic policy statement (SPS) to set priorities for the industry and the regulator OFWAT which Ministers are obliged to publish ahead of each five-year investment round.

The Angling Trust are joint sponsors of the report and are running an Anglers Against Pollution’ campaign which includes this petition.

Surfers Against Sewage and Blueprint for Water, (part of Wildlife and Countryside Link, which is a coalition of conservation charities) are also active in the campaigning arena. 

WTT's role

WTT’s focus is on practical habitat work rather than campaigning . Our objective is to return ecological functionality to the physically abused rivers of the UK and Ireland and, through this work, get people involved with their river. 

On issues like pollution and low flows, we spread word (in various ways, like this blog), we work with fellow NGOs whose primary purpose is campaigning and lobbying and we go directly to policy makers in government to tell them what we see out on the river. That is an expert view, based on the 1000 days that our Conservation Officers spend each year by and in the rivers of the UK and Ireland.