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Taskforce sets goal to end pollution from storm overflows

A joint industry-government group established last year to tackle river pollution has now agreed a new objective to prevent damage from storm overflows, fantastic news for paddlers and water users alike.

The action comes off the back of the Surfers Against Sewage #EndSewagePollution campaign which has been enthusiastically supported by British Canoeing members, with British Canoeing part of the EndSewagePollution Coalition along with other organisations including the Angling Trust, The Rivers Trust and the Association of Outdoor swimmers amongst others.

The Storm Overflows Taskforce – made up of Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water, Blueprint for Water and Water UK  – has agreed to set a long term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows. Following recommendations from the Taskforce, water companies will also increase transparency around when and how storm overflows are used.

Storm overflows were designed to be used during extreme weather to prevent sewers becoming overloaded with a combination of sewage and rainwater, releasing diluted wastewater into rivers rather than letting it back up into people’s homes. However climate change has led to increased rainfall and water infrastructure has not kept pace with development growth over decades.

Water companies have agreed to make real-time data on sewage discharges available at bathing sites all year round, meaning surfers, swimmers and other water users can check the latest information – especially after heavy rainfall.  Water companies will also accelerate work to install monitoring devices to create a complete picture of their activity by 2023.

In addition, the Taskforce has agreed with water companies that they will publish annual monitoring data on their websites about their use of storm overflows so that progress in reducing their use can be tracked. The Environment Agency will compile this data into an annual report that is easily accessible to the public.

The Taskforce update comes as the Government confirms it is also working with Philip Dunne MP on our shared ambitions to tackle sewage pollution in our rivers.

The Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, introduced by Mr Dunne to Parliament last year, has raised awareness of a number of issues associated with storm overflows. The Government has committed to continuing to work with Mr Dunne on the best way to make progress in reducing the harm caused by sewage spilling into our rivers.

Since 2010, 884 storm overflows have been improved to reduce their environmental impact and frequency of operation, with a further 798 improvements planned for the period 2020 – 2025.

Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow, said: “I have been shocked to discover the extent of sewage routinely spilled in our rivers. Poor water quality has a very damaging impact on aquatic species which depend on clean rivers, and risks healthy enjoyment of our rivers by the public.

“I am really pleased this Government has recognised that this has got to change. I am delighted the Minister has responded so quickly to Covid restrictions interrupting progress of my Private Members Bill by agreeing to work with me to develop measures to improve water quality across England.”

The Storm Overflows Taskforce was set up in August 2020 to bring together water companies, regulators and environmental NGOs to accelerate progress in this area, building on work already underway to improve our rivers and waterways.

Its work covers a series of short, medium and long-term actions focused on the goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows – a generational endeavour that will involve significant change and take time to achieve.

The Environment Bill will place a statutory requirement on water companies to produce drainage and sewerage management plans to help deliver more of the actions needed to address the risks sewerage assets may pose to the environment.

It is the responsibility of water companies to ensure serious water pollution incidents do not occur, and they have committed to a significant programme of improvements to the monitoring and management of storm overflows over the next five years at a cost of around £1.1 billion.

As a result of the work of the Taskforce, water companies have identified opportunities to increase the number of overflows they will improve over the next five years.

Work will continue to consider how the guidance given by the Secretary of State to the regulator Ofwat can best reflect the importance of water quality in water companies’ activities. 

Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said:

“Publishing easily accessible data is an important step to reversing the overuse of storm overflows, but disclosure is only ever the beginning. People want to see progress.  

 “Water quality in England’s 240,631 kilometres of river is everyone’s responsibility but water companies have a pivotal role in helping the whole country make the necessary big changes. We look forward to working with them, as well as government and MPs, to turn today’s ambition into action.”