The sewage saga rolls on

In this blog post, WTT volunteer Denise Ashton attempts to summarise some of the various campaigns, media coverage and plans to address the issue of sewage pollution in our rivers since our last blog post on this topic in May 2023,

EA report

The EA published a report in March 2024 showing a 54% increase in the number of sewage spills in 2023 compared to 2022. The very high levels of rainfall are blamed, and they declared the good news that all storm overflows (CSOs) are now fitted with monitoring devices. The media and campaigners were less positive about the news. 

The BBC produced this simple explainer,

Campaigns

Many groups, national and local, continue to campaign on sewage pollution in our rivers. This is necessarily just a tiny subset of those we are aware of, so apologies to the many groups not mentioned. 

The Angling Trust are running Anglers Against Pollution campaign and have also developed a Citizen Science water quality monitoring programme so that angling clubs can get directly involved, providing data to inform the national AT campaign. At a local level, clubs are using their data to challenge the EA, NRW, water companies, the agricultural sector and other polluters to address specific sources of pollution and inform local actions. 

The Rivers Trust continue to maintain a map of sewage discharges, and recently published a wide ranging report on the State of Our Rivers.

Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) continues its forensic examination of data to support their campaign to improve not only the River Windrush but other English rivers affected by sewage discharges. Their hard-hitting blog posts make it clear who needs to do what to stop sewage in our rivers. Lack of enforcement by the Environment Agency and OFWAT are covered. 

The Ilkley Clean Rivers Group campaigned for the River Wharfe at Ilkley to become the UK’s first designated river bathing water. Since then, there have been continuing issues with water quality, described in this blog from Defra. In one small piece of good news, Yorkshire Water has announced a £60m investment in the sewage works at Ilkley in addition to other investments in the area. We look forward to those projects being completed and levels in of E. coli in the river being consistently below the bathing water quality standards.

Sewage in the media

Barely a week goes by without sewage and water companies appearing on TV and in the national press. 

A couple of notable TV programmes: Panorama in December 2023 and Jo Lycett versus Sewage on Channel 4.
The investigative journalists at Watershed continue to publish articles on water quality, most recently relating to PFAS (‘forever chemicals’) found in sewage and drinking water. 

Recent media coverage has also focused on the Water Companies and OFWAT. In particular, Thames Water’s financial position is seen as symptomatic of the failure of a privatised monopoly industry to be properly regulated and operate for the benefit of the public. 

The Oxford and Cambridge boat race provided a useful hook for the media to focus on water quality in the River Thames, and campaign group River Action have teamed up with British Rowing to highlight the issues to rowers’ health.

Results?

We haven’t found any results in terms of improvement to our rivers yet — please let us have any information we have missed.
There are some actions planned or underway, of which perhaps the most significant so far is the EA’s criminal investigation into potential widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at wastewater treatment works’. This investigation passed its two-year birthday in November 2023. They have carried out site visits and are now analysing the data and the thousands of documents obtained’. They say this will take many months. 

Some good news: In November 2023 Fish Legal won their case against Defra with a High Court ruling that the Government, and the Environment Agency, had failed in their mandatory legal duties to review, update and put in place measures to restore rivers and other water bodies under the Water Framework Directive Regulations. Defra is taking the case to appeal.

This guide to using the law to protect your river is very useful. 

Not mentioned in this blog post is the story of the Wye and the impact of chicken farming. The topic of another blog post to come!

CSO1 crop