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The journey of sewage pollution

The sewage pollution scandal has taught us how important our voices are and how each of us can use our voice to make positive change.

End Sewage Pollution

Fact: In 2020 alone, records show raw sewage was discharged into UK Rivers and seas over 400,000 times, spilling for over 3.1m hours (Environment Agency).

For years the issue of sewage pollution has rumbled on, with a growing awareness and growing pressure for change. 

However climate change has led to increased rainfall and water infrastructure has not kept pace with development growth over decades. To prevent sewage backing up into people’s homes, storm overflows have been used more frequently.

With the culmination of the prospect of new post-Brexit legislation and the Government’s ‘ambition to leave our environment in a better state than we found it’ surely the time is now to end the discharge of sewage pollution into our inland and coastal waters?

And then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, it amplified the importance of people being active outdoors connected with nature. There was a growing body of evidence that demonstrated that greater access to green and blue spaces can help tackle some of the biggest challenges we face, from the climate emergency to rising obesity and the mental-health crisis. 

Participation in paddlesports and swimming during the Covid-19 pandemic dramatically increased. Between 2020 and 2021, British Canoeing membership rose from 38,500, to over 90,000. Participation in paddlesports is now estimated at 5.2 million people annually. 

This was to be the beginning of an unprecedented year. By the end of 2019 the #EndSewagePollution coalition of ocean and river activists, led by marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage and including British Canoeing and other key stakeholders  handed a Petition to DEFRA containing  44,691 signatures calling for an end to sewage pollution and a guarantee of safe seas and rivers all year round.

The #EndSewagePollution coalition called for world leading water quality legislation, with an Environment Bill that sets progressive, ambitious and legally binding targets to end untreated sewage discharge into Bathing Water and upholds the highest standards for inland and coastal waters.

The petition hand in coincided with the week when the 2nd reading of the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill was due to take place in the House of Commons, a bill which would later influence the wording of our now Environment Act 2021.

British Canoeing also responded to the Environmental Audit committee’s call for evidence on water quality in rivers which focused on the water industry and urban diffuse pollution with both written and oral evidence.

Public pressure was building, sewage was not about to be swept under the carpet and  in response, the government established a joint industry-government task force group  to tackle river pollution with an agreed objective to prevent damage from storm overflows, this was fantastic news for paddlers and water users alike.

The Storm Overflows Taskforce – made up of Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water, Blueprint for Water and Water UK  agreed to set a long term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows. Following recommendations from the Taskforce, water companies also agreed to increase transparency around when and how storm overflows are used and accelerate work to install monitoring devices to create a complete picture of their activity by 2023.

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

However by now the Environment Bill was nearing its passage through parliament and public pressure was needed to ensure this moment in time was not missed. 

The public outcry continued over the extent of raw sewage being discharged into our waters and wrangling over precise details to be accepted into the Environment bill continued between the House of Lords and the House of Commons with the government voting against a popular amendment proposed by the Duke of Wellington's to secure progressive reductions in harm caused by untreated sewage.

By mid November the Environment Bill became the Environment Act with the government passing its own amendment ‘A sewerage undertaker whose area is wholly or mainly in England must secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from the undertakers storm overflows’ the reference to reducing adverse impacts includes reducing adverse impacts on the environment, and reducing adverse impacts on public health.

In addition: 

  • Water companies must provide real-time information when Sewer Overflows are  discharging within the hour

  • Water companies must monitor and report on the impact of sewage discharges⠀

  • Government must publish a plan to tackle sewage pollution and present to parliament by 2022⠀

More information can be found here 

Does the act go far enough? The wording ’progressive reduction’ provides little clarity on when the volume and scale of raw sewage being pumped into our coastal and inland waters will end. 

We very much welcomed the requirement that reductions should focus on areas to ‘reduce impacts on public health’. Following the pandemic we have seen record numbers of people taking to our waters for recreational purposes, families should be able to experience the fun and joy of paddling outdoors in nature, without concerns for the health of their children due to the presence of raw sewage.

Then as the dust was beginning to settle a shocking announcement by the Environment Agency and OFWAT that a major investigation into sewage treatment works was to be launched.

A press release by Defra said that the prospect of new checks led water companies to admit that they could be releasing unpermitted sewage discharges into rivers and watercourses.

The investigation will involve more than 2,000 sewage treatment works, with any company caught breaching their legal permits facing enforcement action, including fines or prosecutions. Fines can be unlimited in criminal proceedings.

Chantelle Grundy, Access and Environment Officer said:

“Paddlers, Anglers, Swimmers and a whole host of NGOs have all been calling out this issue for some time, whilst also pushing hard for action in the Environment Bill. We’re pleased to see this action finally being taken by the Environment Agency and Ofwat”

It is clear that strong regulation, investment and enforcement are essential to deliver the healthy blue spaces we all depend on so much. We need to keep the pressure on the government, Ofwat, The Environment Agency, Water Companies and others to ensure the discharge of untreated sewage and other chemicals into our inland and coastal waters and we can see these beautiful places flourish and thrive once more with wildlife and  people.

Thank you to all paddlers who have engaged and continue to engage in the fight for clean waters, your voices are being heard. 

British Canoeing will continue to campaign for sewage free waters for all to enjoy paddle sport through our Clear Access Clear Waters campaign and membership of the #EndSewagePollution Coalition.


What can I do?

  1. Report any pollution incidents to the Environment Agency’s 24-hour Hotline: Telephone: 0800 80 70 60.

  2. Check how your local inland or coastal water is impacted, via the Rivers Trust and start a conversation

  3. Keep up to date with real time discharges through the Surfers Against Sewerage Safer seas and rivers app

  4. Contact your water company demanding an end to untreated sewage discharges.


We have our eyes on March 2022 as the Publication of 2021 MAR/APR Storm Overflow data is published AND the Public consultation On the Government’s Storm Overflow plan commences.