Surfers Against Sewage activist surfs the Severn Bore wearing a gas mask to raise awareness of sewage pollution, Photo: Ben Birchall.

Surfers Against Sewage’s annual water quality report reveals that sewage discharges into coastal waters have increased by 87.6% over the last 12 months
• 5,517 sewage discharge notifications were issued by water companies over a 12-month period, an increase of 87.6%.
• 3,328 of these discharge notifications were issued throughout the bathing season.
• One in six days have been rendered ‘unswimmable’ due to sewage pollution during the official bathing season alone.
• One in three reports of sickness after bathing were correlated with a pollution event in the corresponding area.
• Currently only 14% of UK rivers are deemed to have ‘good’ ecological status.
• Six out of eight rivers tested pose a continuous serious risk to human health.

A new report released today reveals the extent of the sewage pollution crisis in the UK’s seas and rivers. Surfers Against Sewage’s (SAS) annual water quality report has found that water companies are increasing the discharge of harmful amounts of sewage into our seas and rivers, with devastating consequences for the environment.

The report details the number of sewer overflow discharge notifications issued over the 12-month period from 1 October 2020 to 30 September 2021, using data accessed from water companies via SAS’ Safer Seas & Rivers Service (SSRS). Whilst sewer overflows can be an important part of the safe management of sewage systems in the event of exceptionally heavy rainfall, the report notes increasing instances of discharge notifications issued at times many would consider to be normal rainfall events.

Surfers Against Sewage, who have been campaigning to end sewage pollution for over 30 years, have found that a total of 5,517 sewer overflow discharge notifications were issued by water companies over the 12-month period – an 87.6% increase on last year’s figure of 2,941. Of these discharge notifications, 3,328 were issued during the bathing season (15 May – 30 September), up on 2020’s figure of 1,195.
With some water companies only providing data during the bathing season, and with data only available for coastal waters, these numbers are likely a conservative estimate of the levels of pollution entering seas and rivers. Water companies are also currently at the centre of a major investigation by financial and environmental watchdogs the Environment Agency and Ofwat after they admitted they may have illegally released untreated sewage into rivers and waterways.

According to the report, Southern Water was by far the biggest culprit amongst water companies when it came to CSOs. Over the course of the bathing season alone a total of 1,949 sewage discharge notifications were issued by the company at an eyewatering average of 38 notifications per bathing water. In addition, almost 30% of the 286 health reports submitted this year came from Southern Water’s operating area.

Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “The findings of our report are shocking and outrageous, but they are by no means unexpected. Time and time again, governments have claimed concern over the pollution of rivers and seas, but have so far failed to take concrete action to change the status quo. Loopholes in laws and systematically defunded regulators have left water companies to run amok.

“The fact is, water companies continue to increase profits whilst causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequences. Instead, eyewatering sums of money are paid out in dividends to investors and huge pay packets are enjoyed by CEOs.

“Why should ordinary people bear the brunt of this greed whilst providers continue to decimate our natural environment? We need water companies to clean up their act and commit to a decade of change to ensure our rivers and coastlines are thriving with people and wildlife again.

The public outrage around the sewage amendments in the Environment Act show just how deeply people want action. The government now states it has the legal tools to hold water companies to account – we will be watching and campaigning to make sure this is the case. The proof will be when sewage emissions are drastically reduced or eliminated, and our rivers and coastline meet the standards that the water industry should have helped deliver many years ago.”

UK rivers are in a particularly poor state. As part of SAS’ data collection, citizen scientists conducted regular water quality sampling at eight locations across the UK where a river flows into the sea at or close to a designated bathing water. The testing found that six out of the eight river sites monitored had elevated E. coli levels, all returning an overall poor water quality result throughout the bathing season. The UK currently has just one designated river bathing water. As a result, rivers are not subject to the same monitoring that is conducted in coastal bathing waters during bathing season – despite being popular spots for bathing and other sports, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. Sewage discharge events also have a detrimental effect on river ecology, and currently only 14% of UK rivers are deemed to have ‘good’ ecological status.

The water quality report identifies clear links between discharge notifications and human health. For the second year, SAS collated health reports through the SSRS to gather evidence of the impact that poor water quality and sewage pollution could be having on people using bathing waters for recreation. Analysis found that one in three reports of sickness after bathing were correlated with a pollution event in the corresponding area.

Prof. William Gaze, Professor of Microbiology at The European Centre for Environment and Human Health, said: “Environmental pollution plays an important role in the “silent pandemic” of antimicrobial resistant infections. Sewage contains high levels of antimicrobial resistant bacteria and antimicrobial drugs which are likely to contribute to emergence of new resistance mechanisms in human pathogens. It is essential that we reduce sewage discharges, and improve wastewater treatment, to reduce the risks to human health associated with exposure to natural recreational waters.”

The report throws into question the classification system used by regulators to indicate the quality of designated bathing waters. SAS reported a higher average number of sewage overflow discharges notifications at locations classified as ‘excellent’ (10 warnings) and ‘good’ (16 warnings) than locations classified ‘sufficient’ (5 warnings) and ‘poor’ (4 warnings). This is opposite to the expected trend, suggesting that bathing water classified as ‘excellent’ and ‘good’ may in fact be experiencing significant sewage pollution.

Dr Christian Dunn, Senior Lecturer in Natural Sciences at Bangor University, stated: “Untreated sewage can be a death potion to our rivers and waterways. It is a cocktail of harmful viruses, bacteria and chemicals. Some of these can directly harm aquatic life and others lead to devastating disruptions in the oxygen levels of the water – risking entire ecosystems. Let’s not forget as well, that raw sewage can include anything that goes down the drain; so that can be illicit drugs, pharmaceutical waste and microplastics. Worryingly we don’t yet know the full effects these can have on life in our rivers. Rivers are essential for the health of entire landscapes, our wildlife depends on them, and there’s no surer way to destroy a river than flooding it with sewage.”

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Water Resources Act, introduced in 1991 to govern water quality, yet pollution from sewage remains a huge issue. SAS’ latest water quality report comes amidst heated debate in and out of Parliament around the role of water companies in polluting our seas and rivers. Just this month, MPs voted to approve an amendment that states that water companies must make a ‘progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from the undertaker’s storm overflows’ – a watered-down version of an amendment tabled by the Duke of Wellington, which would have given rise to a systemic overhaul of sewage management in the UK.