Sewage spills into rivers and seas double in 2023 to reach worst on record

27 March 2024, 10:32

Sewage spills increased markedly last year
Sewage spills increased markedly last year. Picture: Alamy

By Kit Heren

Sewage spills into England's rivers and seas doubled in 2023, marking the worst year on record.

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Some 3.61 million hours of monitored sewage spills were reported in England in 2023, more than double the 1.75 million hours in 2022 and also well above the 3.10 million hours recorded in 2020.

Storm overflow spills are generally caused by heavy rainfall, the Environment Agency said, as more water run-off can put pressure on the sewer network.

The rise in sewage spills was in part driven by the heavy rain recorded in 2023, which was the sixth-wettest year on record. 2022. 2020 is the most comparable year to 2023 in terms of rainfall.

The Environment Agency said that the figures were disappointing, but not surprising. Comparisons over the years are difficult as an increasing number of storm overflows have been fitted with monitors over time, and all now have the technology to record spills.

Read more: Thames Water accused of acting like 'rogue traders' after 136% surge in sewage spills lasting over a day

Read more: Water firms say sorry for sewage and unveil biggest modernisation of sewers 'since Victorian era'

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The government called for water companies to invest more in preventing spillages.

Water companies also plan to invest £10bn by the end of the 2020s, and claim this would reduce the number of spills by 150,000 incidents a year. Thames Water’s 15 million customers are set to get a 12.3% increase to their water bill from April 1, which the company says is necessary to make the necessary improvements to infrastructure.

The Environment Agency's figures show that a total of 464,056 sewage spills were reported in England over 2023. That was up 54% from 301,091 in 2022. It represents the highest number since current data began in 2016, ahead of the previous peak of 403,375 spills in 2020.

The average number of spills per overflow was 33 compared to 23 in 2022 and 32.6 in 2020.

GB triathlete forced to train indoors due to sewage pollution

Some 40% of storm overflows spilled less than 10 times in 2023 compared to 48% in 2022 and 40% in 2020, and 13.9% of storm overflows did not spill at all in 2023 compared to 18% in 2022 and 13% in 2020.

Water Minister Robbie Moore said: I have been clear that sewage pollution in our waters is unacceptable.

"Today's data shows water companies must go further and faster to tackle storm overflows and clean up our precious waterways.

"We will be ensuring the Environment Agency closely scrutinise these findings and take enforcement action where necessary."

Thames Water has been criticised for sewage spills
Thames Water has been criticised for sewage spills. Picture: Getty

Meanwhile Liberal Democrat leader Sir Ed Davey has urged the Government to declare a national environmental emergency after data showed a 54% increase in sewage spills in 2023.

He said: "The Liberal Democrats have been warning this Conservative government for years that the sewage scandal is ruining the country's rivers and beaches, and pushing ecosystems to the brink of collapse.

"Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party have failed to listen and, as a result, sewage spills are increasing, our precious countryside is being destroyed and swimmers are falling sick.

"It is time for this Conservative government to finally deal with this disgraceful situation and declare a national environmental emergency. That must include convening an urgent SAGE meeting to look into the impact of sewage spills on people's health.

"Only by treating the sewage scandal with the urgency it demands can we save our rivers and beaches for future generations to enjoy."

Environment Agency director of water Helen Wakeham said: "Whilst it is disappointing that water companies have reported an increase in sewage spills in 2023, it is sadly not surprising.

"We are pleased to see record investment from the water sector, but we know it will take time for this to be reflected in spill data - it is a complex issue that won't be solved overnight.

"No other country has the level of monitoring we do, with 100% of storm overflows in England now fitted with a monitor.

"We are better placed than ever before to hold water companies accountable - thanks to intelligence from our new whistleblower portal, our plans to expand our specialised workforce, new enforcement powers, increased water company inspections and new tools to inform our enforcement work."

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