“Tip of the shit-berg”: Surfers Against Sewage maps potentially illegal “dry spills”

An investigation by the campaigning charity has identified sewage dumping even when there’s been no rain.

“Tip of the shit-berg”: Surfers Against Sewage maps potentially illegal “dry spills”

An investigation by the charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) has produced the first national analysis of sewage dumping when there has been no rainfall; a practice it believes indicates “potential illegal activity” by Britain’s water companies.

By collating the water companies’ sewage discharge data in a single free and award-winning app – the Safer Seas and Rivers Service – the campaigners have been able to compare the dates and times of these official releases with weather data from the UK Met Office. 

Here’s what the annual SAS Water Quality Report reveals:

How much sewage has been dumped into UK bathing waters since March 2022?

Water companies can receive permission to release untreated sewage directly into natural waterways when there is a particularly heavy downpour of rain. This is to prevent the drainage systems from becoming overwhelmed and the waste backing up into people’s homes. These actions are known as “storm overflows”.

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, raw sewage was dumped into Britain’s rivers and seas more than 770,000 times, according to the annual data released by water companies each March to the environmental regulator, the Environment Agency. That adds up to almost 6 million hours of pollution being discharged.

Water companies are now obliged to release data to the Environment Agency twice a year. This happened for the first time in October, and the data showed that during the summer of 2022 alone sewage was released 5,504 times into UK bathing waters over a total of 15,021 hours.

How much raw sewage was released even when there was no rain to legitimate a storm overflow?

Surfers Against Sewage’s latest report has identified 146 occasions on which raw sewage was released at popular surf and swim spots during periods of dry weather. 

Not every dry spill is illegal. Water companies are issued permits by the Environment Agency that classify what counts as a consented release in individual cases, with factors such as location and dilution coming into play. But SAS’s campaigns and policy lead, Amy Slack, told Spotlight that the above statistic is also probably just “the tip of the shit-berg”. The charity’s app only tracks releases at about 450 bathing locations, and not all the sewage discharge points across the country, which she estimates comes to around 21,000 points. 

Locations of UK dry sewage spills [Credit: Surfers Against Sewage]

When asked for comment on why companies have been releasing sewage during dry spells, the industry membership body Water UK noted that companies “are set to launch one of the largest ever infrastructure programmes” to address storm overflows. It also said the government needed “to end housing developers’ uncontrolled connections to sewers without first knowing their capacity, and to end the flushing of wet wipes made from materials that cause blockages and fatbergs”. Both, it said in a statement, were “major causes of sewer overloading and spills”.

Why are we relying on charities to provide this information?

The Environment Agency’s ability to successfully regulate the industry has been compromised by its funding being slashed by 50 per cent over the past decade. With water companies now increasingly required to self-report on spills, concerns are growing about impartiality. “It’s like a criminal being required to admit their own crimes to the police,” said Slack, pointing to fines water companies have received in recent years for not being transparent about sewage releases.

Are sewage spills threatening health?

SAS has found that over 39 per cent of the 720 case studies reported to the charity of people becoming ill after bathing correlated to sewage discharge alerts. Meanwhile, according to the government’s own advisers, discharges from storm overflows and other sewage incidents are “a serious public health issue”.

What should the government do to address the UK’s water quality crisis?

Alongside the industry’s calls for regulation on housing developers and wet wipes, Surfers Against Sewage has also published a plan for action. The government’s current targets for tackling storm overflows reach to 2050, which the charity says is too long to wait. Instead, it is pushing for a target that would end raw sewage discharges into bathing waters by 2030 and reduce all untreated discharges by 90 per cent by the same year.

To achieve this, it proposes: introducing legally binding targets, well-funded regulators, and an enhanced water-quality testing regime; establishing 200 inland bathing waters; implementing nature-based solutions to sewage pollution; and urgent investment from companies into their sewage infrastructure. Ending pollution run-off from agricultural production is also essential, as other campaign groups such as River Action are emphasising.

What do the water companies say?

A spokesperson for Southern Water told Spotlight thatStorm releases, which go a long way to reduce the impact of the type of flooding we have seen recently, and which are permitted by the Environmental Agency, reduced by nearly 50 per cent this year compared to last, in part due to a dry summer. We’re investing £2bn to improve environmental performance and further reduce their use, by increasing storage capacity and working with partners to reduce the rain run-off entering the system. Our data on storm overflows, including unconsented spills, is submitted to the Environment Agency. Our annual bathing water update details how we are working to create healthier rivers and seas. This improvement is being achieved through record additional investment to reduce pollution and prevent flooding, industry-leading monitoring and transparency on spill reporting, and the exploration of innovative, nature-based and engineering solutions.”

Meanwhile, a Thames Water spokesperson said that the company has “published an action plan to protect and improve the environment and to provide customers with the service they expect and deserve. We continue to fully cooperate and engage with our regulators on their investigations as well as working with local stakeholders, including arranging site visits, and providing and explaining data on our wastewater activities.” The spokesperson added that Thames Water’s shareholders have recently approved an additional £2bn “beyond what our customers are funding so we can improve outcomes for customers, leakage and river health, and we’ve also committed to a 50 per cent reduction in the total annual duration of sewage discharges across London and the Thames Valley by 2030, and within that an 80 per cent reduction in sensitive catchments”. Thames Water also said it has started upgrading the Mogden sewage treatment works in west London, as well as increasing sewage treatment capacity at other sites.

[See also: Conservative Environment Network: the government must attract green investment, not deter it]