Campaigners have condemned the rise of recorded discharges by 87.6 per cent as “systematic abuse” of waterways and seas by companies which have “increased profits whilst causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems”.
Southern Water is named “by far the biggest culprit amongst water companies” in the report after the company issued 1,949 sewage discharge notifications from a total of 5,517 around Britain – accounting for 35 per cent of all incidents from nine water companies.
The report, by Surfers Against Sewage, also suggests these could be “conservative estimates”, as some of the companies only provided data during the bathing season and only for coastal waters.
The analysis notes that the rise is partly attributable to some companies increasing the number of sites where they were monitoring sewage discharges but it says this couldn’t account for the bulk of the increase and the authors suggest overburdened and poorly maintained infrastructure is a critical issue.
Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of the campaign group, told The Independent: “The water companies are presiding over a new wave of sewage pollution, both on our coastline and in our rivers.
“People are concerned and outraged by the age old story of a monopoly of companies making a huge amount of money, paying CEOs vast bonuses, paying dividends out to shareholders around the world, meanwhile neglecting to protect the environment we all rely on.
“Southern Water are far and away the worst offender when it comes to discharges but the water companies are giving us more information, so part of the increase is down to having more information.
“But it’s also driven by other factors, including insufficient capacity, badly managed assets and new developments potentially putting more pressure on the water system.”
According to the report, Southern Water now has 51 locations on which it reports, up from 29 during 2019 and 2020. In 2019, it issued 690 sewage discharges. This went down in 2020 to 78 recorded discharges due to the company’s own technical problems. Already in 2021, 1,949 releases have occurred.
The grim assessment comes less than a month after outrage at the failure of MPs to vote in favour of placing a legal duty on water companies not to pump untreated sewage into watercourses.
The row resulted in a compromise in which a new “legal duty” would ensure firms “secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of sewage discharges” from storm overflows.
The impact on the environment from pouring sewage into waterways is severe, experts have warned.
Dr Christian Dunn, senior lecturer in natural sciences at Bangor University, said: “Untreated sewage can be a death potion to our rivers and waterways. It is a cocktail of harmful viruses, bacteria and chemicals. Some of these can directly harm aquatic life and others lead to devastating disruptions in the oxygen levels of the water – risking entire ecosystems.
“Rivers are essential for the health of entire landscapes, our wildlife depends on them and there’s no surer way to destroy a river than flooding it with sewage.”
Dr Toby Willison, director of environment and corporate affairs at Southern Water told The Independent the company recognised it had to do better.
He said: “We share the passion and commitment of Surfers Against Sewage’s to protect our precious coastal water and the 700 miles of coastline in our region.
“We know our performance has to improve and we are driving a step change in investment spending £2bn to cut pollution incidents by 80 per cent by 2025.
“Our new task force aims to cut storm overflows by 80 per cent by 2030. Our target is ambitious but all 83 of our bathing waters meet strict European standards and 78 are excellent or good, a challenge which 20 years ago seemed impossible.
“We also lead the industry in our openness and transparency. Every storm release is announced on our Beachbuoy app in near real time 365 days a year. All of our environmental data is published annually.”
An Environment Agency spokesperson told The Independent: “While 93 per cent of bathing waters are classed as good or excellent – up from 28 per cent in the 1990s – there is clearly much more to do and we continue to work with all those who want to be a part of the solution.
“We welcome Surfers Against Sewage’s work in highlighting this important issue. We have been increasing the transparency and monitoring of sewage spills in order to tackle it more effectively and drive the improvements that we all want to see.
“Monitoring has increased 14-fold over the last five years and for the first time this year, we published data on the frequency and duration of all sewage spills across the country.”
Water UK, a trade body, said the firms wanted “to invest more to improve infrastructure” but also warned “they don’t have all the answers”.
A spokesperson for the organisation 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.”