Sewage campaigners demand action on claims waste ‘illegally dumped’ into UK rivers

An underwater filmmaker told NationalWorld he has been “covered in sewage” while filming UK rivers and says he has seen a massive increase in pollution since 2017

VIDEO WARNING: video contains images of discharged sanitary items witnessed by filmmaker.

Sewage campaigners are demanding action from the government over claims that waste is being illegally dumped into UK rivers.

A report from Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) revealed that water companies are discharging sewage even during warm and dry weather, which is against the law. An underwater filmmaker described it as the “biggest scandal going” and is calling on the government to do something about it.

Sewage outflows are only allowed in “unusually heavy rainfall”, according to the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive, but SAS analysis suggests regulations were ignored by water companies as 146 ‘dry spills’ were detected between October 2021 and September 2022.

Mark Barrow, from Beneath British Waters who specialises in filming freshwater rivers and lakes, told NationalWorld the findings are of “no surprise” as 75% of his filming of sewage discharges is captured when there is either minimal or no rainfall. He said he has seen a massive increase in sewage pollution since 2017 which is affecting wildlife.

Mr Barrow noticed when he first started filming it was not uncommon for him to film grayling in shoals of 300 but now this year he is filming them in small pockets of 20 to 30. He said we are going “backwards on an extremely fast scale” in protecting our rivers.

Amy Slack, Head of Campaigns and Policy at SAS, said it is time the government “took real action” and curbed the “destructive and selfish behaviour of the water companies responsible for this literal s**t storm.”

‘Sewage crisis is out of control’

During this year’s bathing season, from 15 May to 30 September, sewage was dumped into bathing waters 5,504 times, for a total of 15,012 hours, according to SAS’ latest water quality report.

The worst offender was United Utilities, responsible for 2,560 discharges into bathing waters - a total of 10,020 hours. South West followed, discharging for 1,990 hours and Southern Water came in behind them discharging for 1,285 hours.

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Severn Trent is not included because it doesn’t have any designated bathing waters in its region. SAS are campaigning for more inland bathing waters to be designated.

‘Dry spills’, where sewage discharge occurs in warm or dry weather, were detected 146 times over a 12 month period in England and Wales - 95 of these were at locations where water quality is classed as ‘excellent’.

Water companies are prohibited from making ‘dry spills’ from sewage overflows when there has been no rainfall. However, with water companies now allowed to self-report and with little clarity on what is classed an ‘extreme rainfall event’, it is unclear just how many ‘dry spills’ are happening and how much sewage is potentially being illegally discharged.

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Southern Water was responsible for four times as many ‘dry spills’ as the next worst offender, South West Water.

Richard Foord Liberal Democrat MP for Tiverton & Honiton, raised the report from SAS in the House of Commons as it showed “how widespread the problem is and the scale of illegal spills.”

He told NationalWorld the “sewage crisis is out of control” as “water companies are allowing millions of hours of sewage discharges into our waterways, polluting our beaches and rivers.” He added: “This simply isn’t acceptable, and they must clean up their act.”

Mark Barrow, Beneath British Waters

NationalWorld contacted South West Water about the findings from SAS. A South West Water spokesperson said: “We have been working hard to reduce the impact of storm overflows and in this year’s bathing season we have reduced spills by 50% on last year, with a 75% reduction in duration, across our 860 miles of coastline. However, we recognise there is more to do.”

While a spokesperson from Southern Water spokesperson said: “Storm releases, which are permitted by the Environmental Agency, reduced by nearly 50% this year compared to last, in part due to a dry summer. We’re investing £2 billion to improve environmental performance and further reduce their use. Our data on storm overflows, including unconsented spills, is submitted to the Environment Agency.

“Our annual bathing water update details how we are working to create healthier rivers and seas. This improvement is being achieved through record additional investment to reduce pollution and prevent flooding, industry-leading monitoring and transparency on spill reporting, and the exploration of innovative, nature-based and engineering solutions.”

‘I have been covered in sewage’

A total of 720 water users reported getting ill after entering the water between 1 October 2021 and 30 September 2022, according to the SAS report. This number has more than doubled from the previous year, where 286 water users reported getting ill.

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Mr Barrow said he has been “covered in sewage” whilst filming underwater in rivers and it has caused him to become ill. He said: “I recently got ill from sewage in the River Wharfe in October. I was violently ill with horrendous stomach cramps and sickness and other not so pleasant episodes.”

Richard Foord, MP for Tiverton and Honiton, also told NationalWorld that his son became ill in the River Culm this summer after going swimming with a friend.

He said: “Both became ill later the same day, developing gastroenteritis which left them sick and bed bound for a short period. The River Culm received over 9,300 hours of sewage dumping last year, and this shows the real impact it is having on local people and our communities.”

Julia Walker, a social worker based in Shoreham, West Sussex, also fell ill after going for a swim by the port in Shoreham Fort (West Sussex) in September. That evening she experienced diarrhoea and stabbing pain in her kidneys.

She said: “The doctor confirmed I had a bacterial and a kidney infection. They felt that it was very unusual to have both at the same time but said that this was likely caused by swimming in contaminated water.

“I was unwell for six days and it took me a couple of months to get back in the sea, and now I only swim with my head above water for fear of becoming ill again. It makes me very angry that the water companies are affecting how I use the water.”

Mark Barrow, Beneath British Waters

Elsewhere, Kent Wildlife Trust was forced to cancel a wildlife survey in November after releases were made from both the short and long sea outfall pipes and pumped into the ocean off the coast of Margate following heavy rainfall.

Conservationists at Kent Wildlife Trust had to stand volunteers down after an assessment deemed that the sewage discharge would have put them at risk.

Sherece Thompson, Marine Conservation Officer at Kent Wildlife Trust, told NationalWorld: “We had to cancel our citizen science Shoresearch intertidal survey due to over nine hours of raw sewage overflow at our intended survey location, Fulsam Rock, Margate. I could not warrant the risk the raw sewage posed to the volunteers’ health.

“I felt that we were all being let down. It’s disappointing for volunteers and in the wider context it reflects the lack of forward progression with sewage companies.”

‘The biggest scandal going’

The government has cut regulator funding from £120 million to £50 million over the last decade, meaning that holding water companies to account is almost an impossible task.

Mr Barrow said that there “should never have been a reduction in funding and sadly we are now paying the price.”

He added: “There has been a lack of will and investment. The government has an opportunity to do something groundbreaking and show the rest of the world what can be done but they won’t. It is the biggest scandal going and the more you learn the more shocking it is.”

Meanwhile MP Foord said the government’s “lacklustre approach is what has allowed water companies to get away with large-scale sewage dumping.” He told NationalWorld the Liberal Democrats want to abolish Ofwat and “establish a new, properly funded regulator that actually has some teeth to start holding water companies to account.”

Mark Barrow, Beneath British Waters

When asked about the findings from the latest SAS report and what action is being taken to crackdown on illegal sewage spills, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said it has brought in strict targets on sewage pollution and is increasing monitoring as well as transparency.

A Defra spokesperson said: “We are going further and faster than any other government to protect and enhance the health of our rivers, lakes and seas. We have brought in strict targets on sewage pollution and will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in their history to tackle storm sewage discharges – a £56 billion capital investment over 25 years.

“We have been clear that water companies cannot profit from environmental damage. Through increased monitoring and transparency, driven by government, the regulators have launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage treatment works ever. Regulators will use all options for robust enforcement action and will continue to prioritise action to protect bathing waters and high priority nature sites.”

Meanwhile an Ofwat spokesperson told NationalWorld: “What we are witnessing, with sewage being released into the environment, isn’t acceptable. Water companies do not take enough responsibility for their impact on the environment. We have a live investigation into how all wastewater companies manage their sewage treatment works and have opened six enforcement cases into companies based on our findings to date. We will review the findings of this report with interest.”