Water Industry News

Dry Spill Raw Sewage Overflows ‘Becoming Problematic’

The combined sewage system in England is made up of hundreds of thousands of kilometres of pipes and sewers, dating back to Victorian times.


Both clean rainwater and wastewater from kitchens, bathrooms and toilets are transported through the same pipes to a local sewage treatment plant, but in times of heavy rainfall, pipe capacity can be exceeded and the sewer system overwhelmed.


When this happens, there is a chance that sewage works become so inundated that sewage then starts to back up and flood open spaces, roads and properties, unless it is permitted to be spilt elsewhere. This is where combined sewer overflows (CSOs) come in, developed to help reduce the risk of sewage backing up during periods of intense rainfall.


While CSOs are an essential part of the sewer system, there has been much talk in the press over the last few years about just how much sewage is being discharged into the nation’s waterways, an important conversation to have in the face of climate change and the increasing amounts of pressure being put on water resources.


The Environment Agency provides utility companies with environmental permits to regulate intermittent discharges from CSOs and wastewater treatment works.


Storm overflows are classed as unsatisfactory if they operate in breach of their permit conditions, if they cause pollution of groundwater, if they cause or contribute to failures in bathing water quality standards… and if they operate during dry weather conditions.


This latter point is something that a new report from Surfers Against Sewage has dug a little deeper into, with 143 dry spills discovered in the last 12 months. During these episodes, raw sewage was discharged into popular surf and swim spots around the country, despite the fact that there had been no rain to speak of.


The worst offender was revealed as being Southern Water, which was responsible for four times as many of these dry spills than South West Water, the next worst offender in the rundown. Furthermore, some 95 dry spills were found at locations that are considered to be excellent under the current water quality testing regime.


“Most bathers will consider avoiding the water after heavy rain, but our analysis shows that sewage is being discharged into our precious blue spaces even when there has been no rainfall, putting us and the environment at risk.


“What’s worse is that in dry conditions where there is less water, the pollution entering waterways is more concentrated, so the contamination risk from the infectious organisms present in these untreated discharges is even higher,” the report concluded.


Part of the problem is that regulator funding has been reduced from £120 million to £50 million in the last ten years, with water companies now permitted to self-report on pollution incidents… which means that it’s likely we will continue to see increasing amounts of sewage being dumped in the nation’s waterways over the coming decades.


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