The recent announcement comes after growing pressure for action on water companies and government ministers as the scale of the challenges facing our rivers becomes more apparent amidst the increasing evidence of the poor state of the UK’s waterways.

What’s the problem?

Contaminated rivers pose a threat to human health, wildlife and the ecosystems we depend on. Our rivers are in a critical condition, with only 14% of rivers in England considered to be of a good ecological standard. None of England’s rivers currently meet quality tests for pollution.

One major source of contamination is sewage discharge. Currently, the Environment Agency issues permits to water companies to enable them to release untreated sewage from storm overflows into waterways after extreme weather events, such as torrential rain, to stop water building up and flooding homes and streets.

It is designed to be a last resort option to manage sewage flooding. However, if an excessive number of discharges are made from a storm overflow, an investigation by the Environment Agency is triggered.

Research from the Environment Agency revealed that in 2020, water companies discharged raw sewage from storm overflows for over three million hours in 400,000 incidents. This data highlights just how frequent these discharges have become.

Raw sewage discharges can have direct negative effects, including reduction in oxygen concentration and addition of ammonia. Indirectly the excessive addition of nutrients to water bodies, such as from sources including sewage, leads to problems such as eutrophication.

Eutrophication can cause excessive growth of algae, resulting in the degradation of water quality, including the loss of plants, a reduction in numbers of fish and reductions in oxygen levels required by aquatic organisms.

With future increases in extreme weather due to climate change predicted, this problem is only going to get worse as we see more flooding and unprecedented wet weather events.

What is being proposed?

Rebecca Pow, Environment Minister, has promised that measures to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows will be enshrined in law.

The new legislation focuses on three key areas:

  • Government is required to publish a plan, outlining action to reduce sewage discharges from storm overflows to be completed by September 2022.
  • There will be an obligation on Government to report to Parliament on the progress it is making on implementing the plan.
  • Water companies will have a duty to publish data on storm overflow operation annually.

It was announced on 11th May that these provisions will be added by government amendment to the Environment Bill which should be passed later this year.

How to tackle river pollution

Alongside legislated action by water companies, it is the responsibility of all of us – industry, housing developers and homeowners – to ensure that any spills that do occur minimise the damage. We need to ensure that clean water is always diverted away from foul water sewers and that contaminants such as household cooking fat, sanitary products etc., are not flushed down the sink or toilet.

We should only put the three Ps down our toilets (poo, pee and paper); anything else should be disposed of in a bin. If you spot any pollution in our rivers, such as accidental or deliberate spills, you can report it to the Environment Agency.

APEM is uniquely placed to help tackle water pollution challenges. Our freshwater scientists are recognised experts in their specialist fields.

We work closely with water companies across the UK and Ireland, supporting water quality management through environmental assessment, including for the Storm Overflow Assessment Framework (SOAF) and bathing waters, and provide other water management services including water quality modelling, emergency pollution incident response, water resources studies for drought planning, water leak detection, algal bloom investigations and mitigation, invasive non-native species management and land management advice to reduce diffuse pollution.

We provide services for monitoring water quality biologically and chemically, for both point source and diffuse pollution to comply with environmental legislation (such as the Water Framework Directive and the Bathing Water Directive) and the drinking water regulation standards.

Our professional, client-focused services for water pollution control range from baseline and wet weather diffuse pollution surveys to point source pollution tracing and mitigation.

These on-the-ground services are supported by APEM’s in-house laboratories who provide water sample analysis for algae and macroinvertebrate, and our digital aerial survey technology enables us to cover large river catchment areas quickly and cost-effectively.

Find out more about our water pollution services.