Monitoring alerts revealed that sewage was discharged into the sea at more than 50 coastal locations, sparking anger from the public as images and videos of the spills appeared online.
The mass discharges come just weeks after calls from the Environment Agency called for water company bosses to face jail terms for repeated sewage spills in a report showing that companies are actually getting worse at tackling spills.
The report showed that sewage spills hit their highest level since 2013 last year, with sewage spilling into England’s rivers over a period of 2.6 million hours in 2021 alone, without including spills into the sea.
England is now one of the worst places in Europe when it comes to water quality, with just 14 per cent of rivers in “good” ecological condition.
It’s not just sewage to blame. Rivers and seas are also being polluted with plastics, urban runoff and agricultural runoff.
Scotland’s water isn’t privatised, and is instead is run by Scottish Water, a publicly-owned corporation which is answerable to Scottish ministers.
In general, Scotland’s waterways are not as polluted as those in England and Wales when it comes to sewage.
However, this doesn’t mean Scotland is free of sewage pollution. In 2021, data showed that the number of sewage spills had increased by 40 per cent during the previous five years.
This represents the equivalent of 47,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of waste being discharged since 2016.
The total number of spills is much lower than in England, with a total of 12,725 spills recorded in Scotland in 2020 while roughly 400,000 incidents were recorded in England that year.
However, the true number of spills is likely to be much higher in both cases due to limited availability of data and poor monitoring.
Why is pollution still happening?
Water companies say that outdated Victorian infrastructure and a growing population has created untenable pressure on the water system.
The infrastructure, they say, is unable to cope with the large volumes of material it has to process, with non-flushable waste products such as wet wipes making the problem even worse by blocking pipes.
Last year, water companies admitted that sewage pollution will likely continue for years to come due to the scale of investment needed.
Campaigners have questioned claims that water companies lack the resources to update this infrastructure, however, with water bosses taking home large paychecks and significant sums paid out to shareholders in dividends.
Southern Water, Thames Water and Yorkshire Water all promised to stop paying dividends to shareholders following instruction from Ofwat to invest in infrastructure, but reneged on this promise soon afterwards.
Authorities have similarly blamed a lack of investment in agriculture and the highways system for the continued problem of pollution via runoff.
The Environment Agency has also called for higher fines for water companies who fail to protect rivers along with prison sentences for chief executives who oversee serious pollution events.
How can I find out how much pollution is in my river?
Though it’s more difficult to find out the level of general pollution in your river, you can find out how much sewage is in your local river.
In an effort to aid transparency over sewage spills into rivers, the Rivers Trust has created a map using data from these event duration monitors which shows where and for how long sewage is being dumped into your river.
You can type in your postcode or simply zoom into the map to see the location of spills near you.
An online map from Surfers Against Sewage can show you where pollution alerts are in place at coastal locations.
What can I do about sewage pollution?
If you are concerned about the level of pollution in your river, you can join a local river campaign group or sign up to your local Rivers Trust group to help monitor and improve water quality, as well as raising awareness of the issue.
You could also consider writing to your MP, local farming association or water company about the issue. The Surfers Against Sewage Safer Seas app allows you to report a pollution incident directly to your MP.
If none currently exists, you could also consider starting your own local campaign group. Many existing groups will be happy to share advice with you on the best way to approach such a venture.
Campaign groups have been successful in securing some wins on water quality in recent years.
In Ilkley, a local campaign group secured the UK’s first bathing status award for a river, meaning the Environment Agency will be obliged to test the water more regularly and award it a rating of “excellent”, “good”, “sufficient” or “poor”.
The campaigners hope the ratings system will raise public awareness of the poor quality of river water in the UK.
Two popular swimming areas in the Isle of Wight and the River Thames in Oxford are also set to become bathing waters under new consultation plans.
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