Recently there has been some social media coverage relating to the discharge of untreated sewage by water companies in England, and the Government's Environment Bill, which is currently passing through Parliament. As is often the case with such votes, the situation is complex and has either been misunderstood or wilfully misrepresented by some for political purposes.
Sewage discharge is currently taking place too often, as a result of "storm overflows".
Much of our sewage and drainage system was built in Victorian times. Surface water from roof drainpipes and road gullies is often still channeled into the system alongside waste water and sewage from households and businesses.
This runs into treatment plants and is purified, before being released safely into watercourses. However, when there is very heavy rain, too much water can enter the system and pressure builds. If the pressure reaches a certain level, this mixture of rain water and sewage would simply flow back up the pipes and flood people’s homes, roads and gardens. As a result, storm discharges of waste water (albeit diluted) must on occasions be released into rivers and the sea.
The amendment which has been highlighted (while well-intentioned) would have required such discharges into watercourses to be reduced regardless of weather conditions, without a plan to achieve this. Taken to its extreme, this would at times provide water companies with no choice other than to allow backflow onto land and into properties.
It is estimated that to dig up much of our national sewer pipe system so as to separate foul waste from surface water will cost between £150 billion and £660 billion. To put this into perspective, £150 billion is more than the entire annual schools, policing and defence budgets put together. This issue therefore requires far more consideration than a simple nod through Parliament. The Government cannot place a duty on water companies amounting to signing a blank cheque on behalf of customers.
The Environment Bill is still being debated and voted upon but currently includes:
1. A new duty on Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from overflows and the harm this causes by September 2022, and report to Parliament on progress.
2. A new duty on water companies and the Environment Agency to publish data on storm overflow operation on an annual basis.
3. A new duty on government to produce a report setting out the actions that would be needed to eliminate storm overflow in England and the costs and benefits of those actions. This report will provide Parliament, the public and the water industry with up-front, clear and comprehensive information on the feasibility and cost of elimination. Between the Government plan on storm overflows and the new elimination report, the Government will set out transparently and precisely how far we can go in tackling storm overflows.
4. A new duty on water companies to publish near real time information (within 1 hour) of the commencement of an overflow, its location and when it ceases.
5. A new duty on water companies to continuously monitor the water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow and of sewage disposal works.
6. A new duty on water companies to produce comprehensive statutory Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans setting out how they will manage and develop their drainage and sewerage system over a minimum 25-year planning horizon, and how storm overflows will be addressed through these plans.
The Bill also requires the Government to set and achieve at least one new target to drive progress in the priority area of water. In a policy paper published in August 2020, the Government set out the objectives for targets currently under consideration. For water, these include reducing pollution from agriculture, wastewater, and abandoned metal mines, and reducing water demand.
The Government is also taking action on this issue outside the Bill:
1. Between 2020 and 2025, water companies will invest £7.1bn on environmental improvements in England. Of this, £3.1 billion will be invested in in storm overflow improvements.
2. The Government's expectations have been made crystal clear in its draft Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat. For the first time, the Government will be telling the industry’s financial regulator that it expects water companies to take steps to “significantly reduce storm overflows”, and that it expects funding to be approved for them to do so.
3. The Government has committed to undertaking a review of the case for implementing Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 in England. This Schedule would set mandatory build standards for sustainable drainage schemes on new developments, to help to reduce the pressure on combined sewer systems from surface water runoff, as well as providing multifunctional benefits such as for flood prevention and for nature.
4. All of these measures are informed by the work of the Storm Overflows Task Force, which Defra established in August 2020 to bring together key stakeholders from the water industry, environmental NGOs, regulators, and Government in order to drive progress in reducing sewage discharges. The Taskforce has agreed a long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows.
I supported the following Bill which has informed much of the agenda above:
In Wales, sewage management and discharge is carried out by Welsh Water who are answer to the Devolved Administration in Cardiff. Water quality monitoring is carried by Natural Resources Wales, who are also funded by and answerable to Cardiff Bay. The UK Government has no say on these matters in Wales and it is not clear whether the Welsh Labour Government intend to follow the improvements being put in place for England.
I work closely with Welsh Water and the Local Authority with regard to the cleanliness of the bathing water locally, as well as agricultural pollution affecting the Rivers Elwy and Clwyd. I received the following response from Welsh Water earlier this year, which may be of interest:
Dear Dr Davies MP
As a not-for-profit company so closely linked to the environment, we’re aware of the impact our operations can have on our surroundings and take our environmental performance very seriously. This includes the operation and maintenance of our extensive wastewater network, which includes more than 830 wastewater treatment works and over 37,000km of sewers across all the communities we serve. Much of our sewerage network is a combined system, that not only conveys sewage but also has extensive surface and storm water connections. This is what complicates and makes separation of the system an enormous task that will take many years to change. A lot of this surface water enters the network from customers roofs and driveways and a lot comes from the road and highway drains, so uncoupling it from the sewers requires significant investment and disruption. We have delivered the biggest retrofit of sustainable urban drainage (SUDs) in the UK, in the Llanelli and Swansea catchments, which took 7 years and £115m, so we understand the challenges this task will present.
Our network also includes combined storm overflows (CSOs), they play an essential role in stopping sewage from backing up into customers’ properties during periods of prolonged, or heavy rain. It’s important to note given the extreme weather patterns we experienced over the past 12 months as a direct result of climate change. 2020 was the third wettest year recorded since 1910 (after 2000 and 2012) with 9 named storm events throughout the year. As our sewerage system was not designed to deal with such intense storm conditions, it’s inevitable that this will have increased the frequency that some CSOs have operated. Investing to meet the challenges of climate change is a key business priority for us.
Whilst CSOs are mainly operating as designed and permitted, we recognise that with environmental legislation tightening and customer expectations changing, more needs to be done. However, this requires significant additional funding and will take many years to deliver. To retrofit our network would be an enormous long-term undertaking and disruptive to the communities we serve. As mentioned above Wales has over 38,000km of sewers, much of it rural and sparsely populated areas, and changing the way it operates to remove the need for CSOs completely, would take decades and cost around £9 - £14 billion.
Nonetheless, we’re taking action and have invested £8.1 million in improving the monitoring of the CSOs since 2015 and added more than a thousand monitors since 2017. We now have spill monitors on over 90% of our CSOs and 97% by the end of 2021 which is well above the industry average. This is a crucial first step so that we can identify and understand the scale of the issues we need to address. These monitors record the number and duration of spills, and this data is published on our website allowing us to develop investment cases to make further improvements, and also to provide real time spill information for key bathing waters to interested bodies, including Surfers Against Sewage. We’re also reaching out to river users such as the wild swimmers to explore whether we could deploy a system of warnings when CSOs are discharging similar to those deployed on many of our Welsh bathing beaches.
Our rivers in Wales are the cleanest in the UK with double the number of rivers here meeting a good ecological status compared to England. As a company we’ve spent £246 million since 2015 to help improve river and bathing water quality and plan to invest £765 million, on improving our wastewater assets between 2020 and 2025. We’re now pressing ahead with our Drainage Wastewater Management Plan (DWMP).
This builds on the industry-leading work we’ve already done with RainScape and aims to address these future issues by setting out a long-term strategy for managing sustainable solutions to protect our environment for future generations. This has already been achieved in Llanelli as I mentioned earlier through the use of green infrastructure to help significantly reduce the amount of water entering our sewer network so that we can reduce how often these CSOs operate.
In Wales, we do have a programme of tackling some of the CSOs with the biggest impact and this why I wanted to reassure you that we’re taking action to address these challenges that we face.
Managing Director for Waste Water Services