SERT joins call to end CSO spills sooner

The South East Rivers Trust has joined calls from the national movement to set more urgent targets to reduce sewage pollution in our rivers, in reaction to Government announcements.

On Thursday, 31st March, the Government, via Defra, launched a consultation on the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, which it aims to produce by September.


Defra's new targets

Under the proposals, Defra is asking water companies to meet a number of targets to tackle storm sewage discharges.

These include:

  • By 2035, the environmental impacts of 3,000 storm overflows (75%) affecting our most important protected sites will have been eliminated.
  • By 2035, there will be 70% fewer discharges into bathing waters.
  • By 2040, approximately 160,000 discharges, on average, will have been eliminated (40% of the total); and by 2050, approximately 320,000 discharges, on average, will have been eliminated (80% of the total).

The consultation outlines how water companies are expected to achieve these targets, including mapping their sewer networks, reducing surface water connections and engaging in long-term collaborative planning.

The results of a combined sewer overflow (CSO) spill

Rivers Trust reaction and figures

On the same day the Government announced the consultation, the Environment Agency revealed that, in 2021, raw sewage from 15,000 storm overflows was spilled 372,533 times into England’s rivers, representing 2,667,452 hours of spills.

The Rivers Trust movement’s CEO Mark Lloyd said he was disappointed the plan lacked the “urgency we so desperately need”.

The figures show a decrease from 2020, when there were more than 400,000 sewage discharges, meaning more than three million hours.

However, Christine Colvin, Director for Communications and Partnerships at the Rivers Trust, added that the timelines were slower than commitments that some water companies have already made.

A storm tank emergency overflow

SERT's call to end to sewage discharge

Polly Penn, Head of Working with Communities at the South East Rivers Trust, added:

“We are glad that tackling storm overflows in England is a Government priority. However, we would like to see more urgent timescales.

“We want to see an end to the practice of discharging raw sewage into rivers.

“We are very concerned by the latest figures about raw sewage entering our rivers, which puts the health of their ecosystems, as well as public health, at risk.

“We want to be able to swim, paddle, fish and play in our rivers without risk of contracting hepatitis, e-coli, gastroenteritis and other unpleasant diseases.

“We want to give our native wildlife a chance to recover and see our rivers full of life.

“Investment is desperately needed to upgrade our sewer systems to cope not just today, but with the increased pressures predicted in the future.”

The consultation is open from today for six weeks, until 12 May.

Rags on a CSO grate

How is sewage getting into our rivers?

Across England is a network of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs). These are essentially Victorian-era relief valves on the sewage treatment infrastructure.

If sewage piping, or even a sewage treatment works, is becoming overwhelmed with sewage and rainwater, it is diverted and discharged into a nearby watercourse instead of backing up into homes.

A growing population, combined with extreme weather events caused by a changing climate, puts ever more pressure on our drainage systems.

What is really shocking is that, much of the time, this practice is completely legal.

Rags cover a CSO