Many North West Bylines readers will be pleased to learn that local supplier, United Utilities, has been awarded a 4* star rating from the Environment Agency for their performance in limiting the number of pollution incidents in 2021. However, in the same period, United Utilities were discharging sewage into the lakes and rivers of the North West for 540,000 hours in total. How can this be?
English water industry’s 2021 performance
England has nine water and sewage companies, including United Utilities which covers the North West of England. Their environmental performance comes under the Environment Agency, which sets standards and aims to achieve continuous improvement over time. The 2021 report is unusually outspoken and critical:
“In 2021, the environmental performance of England’s 9 water and sewerage companies was the worst we have seen for years. Measured against our four-star rating, most of them went the wrong way: down.
“The sector’s performance on pollution was shocking, much worse than previous years.
“Company directors let this occur and it is simply unacceptable. Over the years the public have seen water company executives and investors rewarded handsomely while the environment pays the price.”
Steve Mogford, chief executive officer of United Utilities and his team may have permitted themselves a mutual pat on the back, as their company was one of only three to achieve the best possible four stars. But the truth is that there’s more to United Utilities’ performance than meets the eye. There is pollution, and then there are storm overflows.
All about storm overflows
The Environment Agency report makes clear that only pollution incidents count towards the star ratings. A pollution incident is an unexpected release, usually of sewage, into a water course, perhaps because of equipment failure – contrary to the terms of the company’s license to operate.
But wastewater systems are designed to overflow when flow is high because of rain and these events do not count as pollution incidents. Without storm overflows, water and sewage would back up into people’s houses when the drains became unable to cope. Most of the UK sewers handle both waste and rainwater, so while the flow of waste remains relatively constant, there will be huge variations because of local weather conditions.
Of course, any discharge into water courses from a storm overflow is diluted by rainwater, but it still represents a biological load which threatens aquatic life, may contain unpleasant solids and overall reduces water quality and represents a risk to health.
The Environment Agency is of course aware of this and has recently been pushing the water companies to monitor the situation. A lot of data, summary and detail, are now available for the approximately 15,000 storm overflows in England. In 2021 United Utilities had:
- The highest number of spill events per storm overflow – 41.8 per annum on average
- The longest total duration of spill events – 540,753 hours, 20% of the English total
- The highest number of storm overflows recording 20 or more spills – 56.3%
- 19 storm overflows that were spilling more than 3,000 hours/year – 35% of the time
The government has a plan
The storm overflow problem is gradually getting worse. As the population grows, more of our countryside is concreted over and climate change brings more severe storms. On the other hand, no great technological or engineering breakthrough is needed – basically, the capacity of the sewage system must be increased so that greater volumes of rainwater can be dealt with before the spill occurs.
The ultimate solution to eliminating storm overflows is to separate wastewater from rainwater drains. Water UK – an industry body made up of the water companies has commissioned the Storm Overflow Evidence Project to study the issue, which looks at the costs and benefits of various options for improvement. The sums involved are huge:
“The complete separation of wastewater and stormwater systems (eliminating storm overflows) would cost between £350 billion and £600 billion.”
The government published its own storm overflows discharge reduction plan in August 2022, which builds on the data in the evidence project. This lays out a series of measures and investments to be undertaken by the water companies over short (three years to 2025), medium (to 2035) and long term (2050).
The aim by then is to eliminate harmful discharges completely. However, critics have pointed to a lack of ambition in the plan which mandates £56bn of investment by the water industry. While this is a huge sum, compare this to the estimates for complete elimination of discharges of up to £600bn and the dividends paid since privatisation of some £57bn.
From the report summary:
“Water companies will have to achieve targets set out in the plan:
- by 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water; and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high priority nature sites
- by 2050, this will apply to all remaining storm overflows covered by our targets, regardless of location.”
What the plan means for United Utilities
In the short term, United Utilities have made what many people will see as a distinctly unchallenging commitment – “33% reduction in discharges against a 2020 baseline”. In 2020, there were 113,940 recorded spills, so this means a reduction to 76,000 spills by 2025. Note there is no commitment to reduce the total duration of spills – in other words, they could achieve their target without reducing the volume discharged at all.
In the medium to long term, United Utilities will have to invest more than any other single company apart from Yorkshire (26% of the total), because of the nature of their infrastructure (and of course the famously wet North West climate).
How should the people of the North West respond?
How important is the water quality of our lakes and rivers? Is it acceptable to wait until 2035 to see significant, noticeable improvements? Should dividends paid to shareholders take precedence over the necessary investments? Would alternative ownership arrangements for the water companies make a difference? Will United Utilities be held to a lower standard simply because they can’t afford the sums needed to really make a difference?
Transparency is important and it is encouraging to see the data being collected and made available. But urgent action is clearly long overdue, and United Utilities performance is clearly not worthy of four stars. North West Bylines will continue to monitor this evolving story.
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