Government’s Storm Overflows Task Force to improve sewage pollution in the UK

In January 2021, the Storm Overflows Taskforce, a joint industry and government group made up of Defra, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Consumer Council for Water, Blueprint for Water and Water UK agreed a new objective to prevent damage from stormwater flows.

The increased rainfall caused by climate change is already apparent and is likely to become an increasing issue. As the population and need for housing grows, there is an increasing pressure on the natural environment, disrupting natural drainage of stormwater and increasing the need for effective sewerage. Current infrastructure has not kept pace with these changes leading to increasing incidents of pollution from sewage discharges particularly during times of high rainfall.

Last year the Guardian reported that water companies discharged raw sewage into England’s rivers 200,000 times in 2019. Sewage pollution contains a toxic cocktail of bacteria, detergents, plastics, wet-wipes and sanitary products with far reaching effects on human health and recreation as well as wildlife habitats and ocean pollution. Whilst this new focus on reducing sewage pollution is welcomed and additional data will help to build a picture of the extent of the issue, there is clearly still more work to be done in tackling it.

Surfers Against Sewage, a charity campaigning for change for the last 30 years, has celebrated this announcement especially that real-time data on sewage discharges will be available at bathing sites year round, with water companies also having to publish how many times they have used CSO’s to pump out raw sewage each year. But, they still call for rapid action from the government, businesses and regulators to eliminate the long-term causes of the pollution.

Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust has urged the government to take bold decisions to make our water infrastructure more resilient. He stressed that solving this problem cannot be achieved by water companies alone.
Some of the key areas that remain unaddressed by the government’s storm overflow taskforce so far…

Water quality legislation

After Brexit, the UK will no longer be covered by EU legislation and urgently needs an environment bill that exceeds existing EU water quality standards. Currently there is no legislation or time sensitive targets set for the elimination of untreated sewage discharge by water companies.

Nature based solutions and SUDS 

Whilst there has been no mention of nature-based solutions in the government’s announcements around the new task force, it is clear that future investment and targets are needed to restore natural habitats, not only to reduce pressure on water systems but to also help tackle climate change.

Infrastructure investment

Water companies have committed £1.1 billion over the next five years to improve the monitoring and management of storm overflows but yet there is no commitment to whether this will be used to end emergency sewage overflows.

The Government has also confirmed that it is also working with Philip Dunne MP to tackle sewage pollution in our rivers. Mr Dunne introduced the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill to Parliament last year and this has raised awareness of several issues associated with storm overflows. It seems that there is an intention and commitment by the government to make improvements that will reduce sewage discharge and improve water quality in the UK but we are yet to see a detailed plan as to how and when this will happen.