Sewage spills in Norfolk will continue for decades and members of the public have played their part by “putting the wrong stuff down our sinks”, Anglian Water bosses have said.
Water company chiefs defended their attempts to reduce how often sewage is released through overflows during a meeting with Norfolk County Council’s scrutiny committee on Wednesday (22 March).
Dr Robin Price, Anglian Water’s director of quality and environment, said the “sewer network is open to abuse” from members of the public and the water firm is trying to eliminate the "legacy" of storm overflows by creating more wetland to prevent surface water run-off heaping pressure on pipes.
When asked on how long it would take to get systems in place which did not rely on discharges during periods of heavy rain, he said it could be done "within decades", Eastern Daily Press reports.
Dr Price added that Anglian Water was investing £800 million in the region between 2020 and 2025, with £200 million directly into addressing storm overflows.
Data on how many incidents there were in 2022 is not yet publicly available, but Dr Price said there had been a "significant reduction" in frequency and duration of storm overflow use.
He said that in 2018, each of the water company’s storm overflows was activated an average of 38 times, while provisional figures for 2022 suggested it had dropped to an annual average of 15 times.
It also emerged at the council meeting that Anglian Water could face enforcement action over potentially illegal storm overflow discharges into the River Wensum in Norwich.
Rachel Storr, from the Environment Agency, confirmed an investigation was underway over four potential breaches in 2020.
The meeting comes after reports of sewage leaks at Mundesley beach in North Norfolk and Gorleston-on-Sea, which was named TripAdvisor’s best beach this year.
‘People are putting the wrong stuff down sinks’
Dr Price said, along with pressures from surface water and breakages, blockages were an issue triggering storm overflows. He added that the public could also play their part in helping to prevent the pressure on sewage systems so “we can solve the issue together”.
He said: "Fundamentally, we are putting the wrong stuff down our sinks. Things like fat and wet wipes. We find nappies, we find walking sticks, we find all sorts.
"Our sewer network is open to abuse. People lift manholes and we have a real fly-tipping problem."
In response to a question from Steve Morphew, scrutiny committee chairman and Labour group leader, Dr Price said: "If we continue to invest in our measures to ensure we are operating at 100% of the time, we can solve the issue together and I think we can do that within decades."
However, Green county councillor Jamie Osborn said an historic lack of investment had contributed.He added that dividends paid to Anglian Water shareholders could have been better used to improve infrastructure.
In response, Dr Price said shareholders had not received any dividends for five years between 2017 and 2021 and investors had reinvested £200 million.
The grilling by councillors came just hours after a House of Lords committee said Ofwat, the regulator for England and Wales, had failed to ensure water companies had invested sufficiently in infrastructure.
The committee said it and the Environment Agency must do more to hold polluters to account through penalties and prosecution.