Stats show we’re treading water on sewage pollution: here's what you can do to stay safe and take action

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Latest reports show that water companies are barely starting to get to grips with the scale of the sewage pollution problem. The Environment Agency last week shared the statistics showing how much raw sewage was released in England in 2021 - 2.66 million hours overall on 372,533 occasions.

More sites are monitored and that represents progress. In Wales there is 99% coverage of known overflows and in England there is now 89% (from 80% last year). The format of the reporting has also improved, making it easier to interpret and cross reference. The Rivers Trust has also now released its updated Sewage Map, plotting the location, frequency and duration of untreated sewage discharges into English and Welsh waterways in 2021.

The EA summarises the reason for high spillers, where combined sewage overflows (CSOs) are spilling above a threshold of 60 times per annum. These are the worst performers in the system, and account for 16% of all CSOs (down from 19% in 2020). Water companies only know the reason for high levels of spills at 44% of those CSOs. And of those, only 2% (in Anglian and Southern Water) are due to exceptional weather. 29% were due to operational issues, and 70% were due to the hydraulic capacity of the system, in other words the sewer system cannot cope with the current waste water volumes.

Christine Colvin, Director for Partnerships & Communications at The Rivers Trust, said: “The data that we’ve seen today serves to highlight the low level of ambition in the Consultation plan from Defra. The plan aims to improve 52% of storm overflows by 2040, so that they’re not spilling more than 10 times per year. EA data shows us that 40% are already recording 10 spills or less. We want to see much more ambition to reduce spills overall and protect sites that are important for people and wildlife.”

Take action

If you'd like to take a stand for our waterways, there are things you can do to help:

  • Sign Surfers Against Sewage's petition calling for 200 river bathing waters by 2030.
  • See The Rivers Trust's guide to taking action through fundraising, volunteering and writing to your local MP

How to reduce your risks from pollution when river swimming

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While it will take many years to clean up our rivers, there is no need to give up swimming in the meantime.

Here are some practical things you can do now to keep yourself safer, and to enjoy swimming in rivers.

  • Check the Rivers Trusts’ Sewage Map. This should show any major outfalls near your swim spot. Also look on Ordnance Survey maps or simply go looking for them from the water. Using a kayak or SUP is a good way to do this. They are usually easy to spot.
  • Once you’ve found any outfalls, observe them and see when they spill, and what they spill. Some may only be discharging rainwater, while others may have both rainwater and sewage. The Rivers Trust map will tell you how much they spilled in the previous year.
  • Some outfalls now have monitors that provide live updates when they spill. More of these are supposed to be fitted over the next few years. Check with your local water authority.
  • Once you know where outfalls are, try to avoid swimming immediately downstream of them. The further away you are, the more dispersed any pollution will be. Don’t swim if they are actively spilling. This usually happens during and after heavy rain but it can happen at other times so continue monitoring them even in dry weather.
  • Be especially cautious around outfalls connected to major sewage treatment works.
  • Rely on your own senses and judgement. If you think the water looks off, don’t swim. If you really feel you must swim regardless, then perhaps stick to head-up breaststroke.
  • Don’t swim if you have any open cuts or grazes. Small cuts can be covered by waterproof plasters.
  • After swimming wash or disinfect your hands before eating or drinking anything.

If you do get ill, in most cases it will be mild and self-limiting and you should recover in a day or two. However, if you develop flu-like symptoms after swimming, you should contact your doctor and let them know you’ve been swimming. Weil’s disease is very rare, and it’s unlikely you will catch it, but because it can be serious, it’s best to check if you have any suspicion.

01 Cover May22 Low Res

Issue 61 May 2022

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  • Swimming for Ukraine
  • Explore: London, Copenhagen and Bristol & Bath
  • Yoga for swimmers
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