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Sewage and slurry: What happened to England’s rivers? (Q&A analysis)

Wednesday, 19 January 2022

A damning parliamentary report has revealed that all rivers in England are polluted to some degree. Aquatech Online looks into the information and responses.

A chemical cocktail

A damning parliamentary report has revealed that all rivers in England are polluted to some degree. Aquatech Online investigates the information and responses.

Q: I thought it was just Boris Johnson and his partying politicians raising eyebrows in the country; what's the new report about?
Indeed! The Number 10 Downing Street cheese and wine “meetings” to one side, the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) report does not make for positive reading. It warns of the “chemical cocktail” coursing through the country’s rivers, including a mix between raw sewage, microplastics, slurry, car tyres, oils and wet wipes. It concluded that every single river is contaminated. Estimates suggest that over 3.1 million hours of sewage pollution were pumped into rivers and beaches in 2020 alone.

“The committee called it a lack of political will to improve water quality.”

Q: Wow, that doesn't sound good. So, who’s to blame?
It's not a single company or even industry but more a collective disregard for the environment that's unfortunately led to this situation. The committee called it a “lack of political will to improve water quality” and that successive governments, water companies and regulators have turned a “blind eye” to antiquated practices of dumping sewage and other pollutants in rivers. However, agriculture and water utilities were referenced as the two biggest polluters.

Q: The water companies are getting a bad rap at the moment – wasn’t one recently fined a record amount?
Well remembered. Indeed, Southern Water agreed to pay £126 million in penalties to customers following severe failures in the operation of its sewage treatment sites. This followed London’s utility Thames Water being fined £4 million after untreated sewage escaped from sewers below London into a park and river. One of the ongoing criticisms is that private water utility shareholders continue to profit when this money could be directed to desperately needed infrastructure improvements. Alastair Chisholm, CIWEM director of policy, said: “Water companies allowed over decades to engineer large dividends to shareholders whilst not keeping pace with the maintenance and infrastructure upgrades population growth and climate change demanded.”

Q: It’s not just the water companies at fault here, correct?
Indeed. Pollution from intensive farming, in particular chicken farms, was called one of the most common ways rivers are being polluted. The South-West Midlands and Wales were singled out, where waste from 20 million chickens is said to be raising the phosphorus levels in the River Wye.

“Budget cuts to the Environment Agency have hampered its ability to monitor water quality in rivers.”

Q: I’ll avoid any chicken puns, then. So how powerful is the EAC to bring the companies responsible to account?
Unfortunately, not very. The committee cannot force the government to push its recommendations through parliament. The EAC can summon witnesses and request governments to investigate environmental protection. However, the report can be used to convince the government and its regulatory agencies to change their behaviour on river pollution.

Q: How about the environmental regulator, the Environment Agency (EA) – can it bring in increased enforcement to put a stop to this?
In an ideal world, yes. However, only weeks before the release of the report, it was revealed that budget cuts to the Environment Agency have hampered its ability to monitor water quality in rivers, as well as to detect permit breaches of pollution incidents from the water industry and farming. In fact, a report from the Guardian revealed the agency had told its staff to “shut down” and ignore reports of low-impact pollution as it couldn’t afford to investigate them. CIWEM’s Chisholm commented that it has left “farm inspections so infrequent that generations of land managers could finish their careers without ever having been paid a visit”.

Q: How will it impact communities – will people take action into their own hands?
As Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust, said: "There is nothing more essential than water for all of us." As you’d expect, people have enjoyed local rivers for years for various sporting activities, including swimming and fishing. Interestingly, the report recognised the value of citizen science. An analysis of water company data revealed the actual number of sewer overflow discharges might be "higher than those reported by water companies to the Environment Agency". Hugo Tagholm, CEO of the campaign group, Surfers Against Sewage, said: "Decision-makers must listen and act now, or be held to account by an angry and engaged public."

Q: So, what are the recommendations from the report?
Numerous recommendations have been put forward, including that water companies should be more heavily penalised for sewer discharges. It also advised that "self-monitoring" should be urgently reviewed. This links back to the citizen science movement mentioned earlier and community groups reporting sewage overflow incidents often not reported by the utilities. Regarding poultry farming, the report recommended that new poultry farms should not be permitted "in areas where rivers have excess levels of nutrients". Furthermore, supermarkets should be obliged to disclose the environmental impact of their encouragement of factory farming.

Q: So, how have the water companies and their representative bodies responded?
Industry body Water UK said that the committee was right to highlight the need for “further investment to eliminate harm from storm overflows and treatment works”. A spokesperson said that water utilities wish to invest more and that it’s pushing regulator Ofwat to “enable this increased spending over the next decade”.

“That is a form of escapism by making the answer simply unaffordable and impractical.”

Q: Increased spending sounds like a vital and positive move. How much is needed?
Ministers have sugged that it could cost up to £660 billion to upgrade sewer infrastructure. However, this enormous figure has been questioned. “It is not about a wholesale replacement of the sewerage system,” Dr David Lloyd Owen told Aquatech Online. “That is a form of escapism by making the answer simply unaffordable and impractical. It is about making the sewerage network work.” A storm overflows taskforce estimated that a more realistic figure is between £13.5bn to £21.7bn to reduce spills from storm overflows to an average of 10 per year in sensitive areas.

Q: The report and comments suggest the current infrastructure isn't up to date. So, where can technology developments, particularly in water quality monitoring, play a role here?
Digital tools have developed considerably since the sewer infrastructure was first engineered and constructed. A real-time enabled network of remote monitors could allow early indications on where and when pollution events have occurred. Furthermore, advances in sewer monitoring can significantly improve the performance of sewers by pre-empting blockages.

“It is about making the sewerage network work,” added Owen. “Monitor its condition remotely, monitor inland water quality in real-time, install real-time monitoring at every combined sewer overflow (CSO) and put in basic and effective remedial measures at the problematic ones. We are talking in the low billions here, and a lot can be done for a great deal less.”

Other industry experts believe a “real-time digital twin of river health” could be created by combining solutions.

Speaking to Aquatech Online, Tom Williams, CEO of consultancy Enebio, said: “We need to use real-time monitoring to keep track of all our rivers. This starts from the top of the catchment, working down. Only with good information can innovative solutions be rolled out.”

He added that digital technologies such as satellite and artificial intelligence (AI) will be a big part of future solutions but that without “real time quality data, they won’t solve the issues”.

The full report can be found here.

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