Something is stirring in the murky world of sewage discharges in the North West. Heavily publicised incidents this year have led to public anger and pressure on our elected representatives. An educated population can make a difference, so how can people keep track of events and help to accelerate water quality improvements?
What just happened?
Public awareness of, and anger about, the discharge of sewage into our lakes, rivers and seas is on the rise. Caroline Lucas, Green Party MP for Brighton Pavilion, has vigorously attacked the government’s discharge reduction plan in the House of Commons.
Eye catching headlines are appearing in local newspapers across the region:
- ‘Sewage seeps into Lancashire and Cumbria’s popular swimming spots after heavy downpours’ (lancs.live)
- ‘Warnings after Lancashire sewage systems ‘overwhelmed [by] heavy rain’’ (Lancashire Telegraph)
- ‘Readers react to sewage released in Cumbria’ (The Mail (Cumbria))
- ‘Chester Zoo calls Welsh Water sewage in River Dee ‘unacceptable’’ (The Standard (Chester))
An effective campaign in social media is calling out Conservative MPs who voted against an amendment to the environment bill, which would have put a duty on water companies to reduce sewage discharges. The claim that they have voted for raw sewage to be pumped into local water courses is a powerful one, even though the reality is less clear cut. But undoubtedly the perception that profitable water companies prioritise the payment of dividends over improving water quality is a compelling one that could drive change over the coming months and years.
Where is that nasty sewage going?
There are several valuable resources available where data on storm overflows, pollution incidents and water quality are presented in easily digestible form to the public. Having good data on the problem is the essential first step in making improvements, and local campaigns can be built using these data.
Surfers Against Sewage has a useful interactive map and even a Smartphone App – search for ‘Safer Seas and Rivers’. The screenshot below shows the live status in the North West on 13 September. The red crosses show where there are currently issues with water quality.
Data are collated from the following sources:
- Automated alerts from water companies’ monitoring
- Pollution risk forecasts from the Environment Agency (England), Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Natural Resources Wales
- Pollution incident warnings
The government publishes a similar real time map of bathing water quality for the UK.
The Rivers Trust has collated the data from the water companies monitoring of storm discharges and again used a map to allow people to drill down and investigate what is happening in their local area. For example, this is the information displayed about Warrington region in Cheshire and Lancashire:
While many sewage discharges through storm overflows do not count as pollution so far as the Environment Agency are concerned, they do make data available to download on all pollution incidents by region and category. Cursory examination shows 1271 incidents in the most serious category 1 and 2 in the North West region in 2021. It is important to remember that our lakes, rivers and seas are under stress from discharges from industry and agriculture as well as sewage and a holistic approach to water quality is essential.
In their response to the government’s Discharge Reduction Plan, Yorkshire Water made this point:
“The investment driven by the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan will remove storm overflows as being a reason for water quality failure, but it will not solve the problem of river water quality.”
What is an acceptable standard for water quality?
The government has published its storm overflows discharge reduction plan, which lays out targets to be achieved by the water companies by 2025, 2035 and 2050. This document will drive decisions by the industry as they create rolling five-year investment plans. In this scenario, the economic water industry regulator (in England and Wales this is Ofwat), will determine how much consumers can be charged to raise money for the required improvements.
Ofwat has several objectives, including to “secure that water companies can (in particular through securing reasonable returns on their capital) finance the proper carrying out of their statutory functions”.
However, the demands placed on the water companies are not evenly spread. United Utilities and Yorkshire Water have an old infrastructure with many miles of combined sewers (which carry both surface and wastewater). The two companies issued a joint response to a draft of the discharge reduction plan. They pointed out the inescapable fact that bills for their customers would have to rise much more quickly than those in other parts of the country to achieve the desired goals.
In the government’s own words (storm overflows discharge reduction plan p16):
“We expect there to be significant variations across years and water company regions, with bill impacts for water company regions with the largest overflow programmes up to 3 times the national average and for those with the smallest programmes lower than a seventh of the national average.”
What can the people of the North West do?
The water industry model of ‘competing’ businesses paying dividends to their shareholders and large salaries to their executives seems to break down at this point. Clearly, this is a national issue, and the people of the North West should not be penalised because of where they happen to live. The choice facing us seems to be between higher bills than the rest of the UK, or lower water quality for a longer period.
A recent poll showed 69% of the population supported nationalisation of the water industry, indicating that the public is not convinced that the market has the answer to everything. By keeping focus on the problem at a local level, through monitoring the data now publicly available and through pressuring local MPs, councils and the water industry (including Ofwat), it is possible to drive significant change in the way we tackle this issue and accelerate improvements to water quality in the North West and across the whole UK.