Scale of sewage discharges remains ‘unacceptable’

Swim England and The Rivers Trust respond to new sewage discharges figures released by the Environment Agency.

New sewage discharges figures released this week by the Environment Agency have laid bare the continued scale of sewage pollution harming the nation’s rivers. Last week, the Environment Agency has published its Event Duration Monitoring data for 2022. The report includes data from all 10 water and sewerage companies (WaSCs) operating in England, with information on the frequency and duration of storm overflow spills.

The figures revealed that there were more than 300,000 sewage discharges from storm overflows in 2022 – amounting to some 824 spillages every day.

Despite a decrease in the overall number of spills and an increase in monitoring coverage compared to 2021, the Environment Agency states that “the decrease in spills in 2022 is largely down to dry weather, not water company action.” Heavy rainfall is frequently cited by water companies as a reason for discharges, but these latest figures come despite the fact that 2022 was a record dry year.

Rivers not in good ecological health

Swim England says the scale of sewage discharges remains ‘unacceptable’. “We know that our rivers are not in good ecological health and these figures serve as a stark reminder of the unacceptable levels of sewage currently being pumped into our waterways,” says Swim England’s Head of Public Affairs, Phil Brownlie. 

“Urgent action is needed to improve the state of all our waters to protect these precious environments and the wildlife which call them home, as well as ensuring swimmers and other users who access these blue spaces for their physical and mental wellbeing are not risking their own health. We need to see quicker action to tackle these issues and classifying more inland locations as designated bathing waters could also help to act as a catalyst to drive quicker improvements.”

How clean is your local river?

The Rivers Trust says that data on discharges from combined sewer overflows (also known as storm overflows) from 2022 is “distressing”. “We’re pleased to see that the Environment Agency has issued a robust response to the data and hope that the promised regulatory action and enforcement will happen before it’s too late to save our precious river habitats,” said Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of The Rivers Trust. 

“We also want to stress to the public how important it is to use the sewage system properly – only flushing pee, poo, and paper – because the truth is you never know if that waste will be treated or whether it will end up in your local river. Anything other than pee, poo, or paper can contribute to blockages and increase the risk of discharges.”

The Rivers Trust Sewage Map has now been updated with the data for 2022 for England and Wales. Use the map to see where spills occurred; you can zoom in on your local area, search by location, or visit the ‘investigate’ tab to see data breakdowns by constituency. More features will be added soon, with near real-time alerts of sewage spills where that data is available, plus data for Scotland. 

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Jo is the Gear Editor for Outdoor Swimmer and also writes news and features for the website. A keen open water swimmer and long-distance walker, she loves seeking out lakes and lidos close to her home in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. She is the author of The Slow Traveller, editor and founder of independent magazine, Ernest, and has previously tested outdoor clothing and kit for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC Focus and Ernest Journal.