Water industry calls for cleaner bathing rivers, amid SEWAGE fears

Water industry calls for cleaner bathing rivers, amid fears raw SEWAGE is being pumped into popular wild swimming spots including sites off the Isle of Wight, Herne Bay and Ramsgate Sands

  • Campaigners are calling for stricter regulations over sewage in waterways
  • Water UK, industry body for water firms, called for a multi-industry approach
  • They said government, water industry, agriculture and highways were involved
  • They want a new Rivers Bill that could create new dedicated bathing rivers 

The water industry is calling for a network of cleaner ‘bathing rivers,’ amid fears raw sewage is being regularly pumped into popular wild swimming spots in the UK.

The proposal, set out by industry body Water UK, would see safer inland bathing areas created, meeting higher water quality standards, after it was revealed the River Wharfe in Ilkley was the only one that currently had clean bathing bathing status.

The move comes as water companies come under increasing fire for allowing raw sewage to enter riverways and water systems throughout the UK.

In July Southern Water was fined £90 million after pleading guilty to 6,971 sewage discharges, pumping it into river and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex.

Campaigners are calling for tougher restrictions on sewage pollution in public waters, particularly those in beauty spots were people are likely to go swimming.

Previous studies have found evidence of raw sewage finding its way into popular wild swimming locations off the Isle of Wight, in Herne Bay and Ramsgate Sands.

The water industry is calling for a network of cleaner ‘bathing rivers,’ amid fears raw sewage is being regularly pumped into popular wild swimming spots in the UK 


A national plan for rivers – a long-term strategy for rivers involving all partners and the creation of a senior National Plan Steering Group to lead progress

Protection in law – A new ‘Rivers Act’ to ensure legal protection and close loopholes

Local empowerment – Ensure leadership and action at a local level by building on the success of the Catchment Based Approach

Accountability – Use data to look at all sources of harm in rivers, challenging each sector to put in place concrete steps to tackle all barriers to river health

Next-generation monitoring – Work towards a national monitoring platform to collate and make available data on ecology, chemistry, and public-health from all rivers

Support people – Government, manufacturers, and retailers to work together to transform the public’s understanding of the water environment, campaigning to help consumers play their part too, especially on wet wipes and unflushables

Prioritise nature – Embed habitat restoration and species renewal across legislation and spending priorities

Abstraction – Government to introduce a target under the Environment Bill to reduce the amount of water abstracted for the public water supply

Storm Overflows – Agree a plan to eliminate the 4% of harm caused by storm overflows to English rivers

Bathing Rivers – Develop a new approach to ‘Bathing Rivers’ for the delivery of safe recreational use of inland waters in every region of England

Christine McGourty, chief executive of Water UK, said rivers have been in a state of crisis for most of the last 100 years, and despite progress in recent years, there is still a lot more to do to address the challenges. 

‘Water companies are passionate about their own role as stewards of the natural environment and are committed to playing their part,’ she said.

‘But what’s needed is a clear, single, national plan, involving everyone – river users, customer groups, environmental charities, government, regulators as well as agriculture, highways, and all the sectors impacting river quality.’

Water UK says: ‘Legislation on rivers was not designed with swimming in mind. This has led to a very slow adoption of measures to improve conditions.’ 

The industry body says there needs to be a new ‘long-term strategy’ including input from government, regulators and water companies. 

This would allow a step-change from the historic approach of disjointed, incremental, ad-hoc changes and include the creation of a new ‘Rivers Act’ to bring together all existing legislation and provide greater protection for rivers in law.

They published ten actions for change that could be implemented across all sectors to achieve the ‘fundamental changes required’ to save the rivers and waterways.

‘Only around a quarter of the challenges facing rivers are caused by water companies with the largest source of harm coming from agriculture with other sectors, such as highways and local authorities, also playing a part,’ Water UK said.

‘The creation of a national plan to eliminate harm from storm overflows, prioritising nature-based solutions and action to massively increase public awareness of the water environment are among the other bold proposals made.’

Southern Water was once again criticised for putting sewage into waterways over the weekend, as a result of heavy rainfall, which has been put down to Britain’s legacy drainage systems, which merge sewage with rainwater.

According to Southern Water figures, they released raw sewage at more than half of its locations around the south coast.

Other figures, published by the Rivers Trust last month, found just 14 per cent of England’s water bodies are in ‘good ecological health’. 

It is legal for water companies to ‘overflow’ sewage into public waters, on rare occasions, in a bid to avoid it flowing out into homes and on to streets.

This is a measure in law only allowed for in exceptional circumstances, which is why Southern Water were fined earlier this year – for repeated overflows since 2015. 

There is a new amendment to the Environment Bill, recently passed by the House of Lords, that puts a new duty on water companies to ‘take all reasonable steps’ to ensure untreated swage isn’t discharged from overflows into rivers and waterways.

The Rivers Trust welcomed the amendment, saying that changes won’t happen overnight, but presents a clear and explicit ambition to improve.

Tonnes of sewage polluted rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex between 2010 and 2015, a court heard. Pictured: Bosham, West Sussex, where raw sewage was deposited

‘Equally, it aims to ensure that government agencies will actually use their powers of enforcement,’ Christine Colvin of the Rivers Trust told The Independent.

‘Four hundred thousand discharges of raw sewage from storm overflows in 2020 give clear evidence that this isn’t the case currently.’

The amendment was introduced to the Lords by the Duke of Wellington, who said investment was needed to modernise the sewage network.  

Charles Watson, from campaign group River Action UK, told the Telegraph Souther Water was one of the worst offenders when it comes to sewage overflow.

The proposal, set out by industry body Water UK, would see safer inland bathing areas created, meeting higher water quality standards, after it was revealed the River Wharfe in Ilkley was the only one that currently had clean bathing bathing status

However, he said ‘disclosures of multiple sewage discharges into the sea, as well as the many more into rivers that go unreported, will be telling the same story as all the other water companies up and down the country following a rainy weekend.

“It is just a scandal that this is allowed to happen as a matter of accepted routine.

“At the very least, it is imperative that the Government accepts swiftly the House of Lords amendment to the Environment Bill, which will bring forward the ultimate reduction of these horrific combined sewer overflows.”

Southern Water chief executive Ian McAulay said of the fine in July that he was ‘deeply sorry for the historic incidents’ that led to the sentencing. 

‘I know that the people who rely on us to be custodians of the precious environment in southern England must be able to trust us,’ he said.

‘What happened historically was completely unacceptable and Southern Water pleaded guilty to the charges in recognition of that fact.’ 

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