Countries are legally obliged to treat sewage before it is released into waterways. Discharges of untreated human waste are permitted only in exceptional circumstances, for example after extreme rainfall, the European court of justice has ruled.
The new figures show the scale of sewage discharges in England into rivers and seas. They have increased from 292,864 incidents in 2019 to 403,171 in 2020 – a 37% rise.
This is partly because more monitoring of storm overflows by water companies has this year provided a much clearer picture of the scale of the pollution. In 2020, monitoring was placed on 12,092 storm overflows, compared with 8,276 in 2019, a 46% increase. The EA said average spill numbers remained similar to last year.
Sir James Bevan, the EA’s chief executive, said: “Storm overflows are designed to discharge sewage to rivers or the sea at times of heavy rainfall to prevent it backing up into homes and streets. But higher population and climate change means they will discharge more often.
“The Environment Agency is working actively with the water companies to ensure overflows are properly controlled and the harm they do to the environment stopped. Increased monitoring and reporting of storm overflows is part of the solution. It means everyone can see exactly what is happening, and will help drive the improvements and future investment that we all want to see, with GBP1.1bn of investment already planned for the next four years.”
The Rivers Trust said the scale of discharges by water companies was shocking and that real-time monitoring of sewage discharges into rivers was needed.