Coalition calls for new laws to end sewage discharges into UK waters

A coalition of river and sea organisations is calling for targets for water companies to reduce sewage discharges to be included in the upcoming environment bill.

The groups, which include surfers, canoeists and environmental activists, have joined forces in a campaign called #EndSewagePollution. They intend to deliver a petition calling for an end to sewage discharges into rivers and coastal waters to George Eustice, the environment secretary, next month.

All English rivers failed to meet quality tests for pollution under the EU’s water framework directive in results published this month.

There has been no improvement in the state of English rivers since 2016, when the last data was published, despite government promises that 75% of English rivers would be rated as good by 2027. The data showed only 16% of waterways – rivers, lakes and streams – were classed as being in ecological good health, the same as 2016.

Hugo Tagholm, the chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “This is simply unacceptable and it’s time for the continued pollution of rivers and the ocean to stop. We demand government set legally binding targets for an end to sewage discharges which will see a strong framework set to hold water companies to account. We need polluters to pay with fines that reflect the scale of damage pollution causes to both fragile inland and coastal ecosystems and human health.”

The coalition, which includes the Rivers Trust, London Waterkeeper, British Canoeing and the Angling Trust, wants to see sewage discharges reduced to zero by 2030.

This echoes a demand for a law change by the Conservative chair of the environmental audit committee, Philip Dunne. He has created a private member’s bill aiming to place a duty on water companies to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and inland waterways.

The coalition has so far attracted the support of 30,000 members of the public who have signed the #EndSewagePollution petition.

Mark Lloyd, the CEO of the Rivers Trust, said: “Sewage pollution is extremely damaging to the health of our rivers and we need an honest conversation at a national scale about how significant change can be enacted – about whether we are prepared to invest HS2-equivalent sums to modernise our drainage and sewerage system, and how regulations on pollution from all sectors will be properly enforced so that the rest of society doesn’t pay the price for polluters’ actions.”

Theo Thomas, from London Waterkeeper, said: There’s an increasing awareness what’s happening to our rivers. This must lead to a rejuvenation of these precious habitats. With people at the heart of it we can hold the authorities to account and achieve real change.”

The Guardian revealed this summer that water companies discharged raw sewage into English rivers more than 200,000 times in 2019 from storm overflows. The discharges are permitted by the Environment Agency but are supposed to take place only after extreme weather.

Sewage wastewater discharges by water companies into rivers account for damage to 36% of waterways, and run-off from agricultural industries is responsible for 40% of damage to waterways, according to the EA.


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