Pledge over water quality as strict river rules set out

Water companies could be forced to completely eliminate the harm any sewage discharge causes the environment under strict new Government proposals.

Flood Minister Rebecca Pow
Flood Minister Rebecca Pow

Ministers launched a consultation last month on plans to deliver the largest programme to tackle storm sewage discharges in history – and stamp out the issue.

It has been welcomed by the Environmental Audit Committee with Government chiefs branding water a "top priority" which they are aiming to keep protected.

The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan Consultation aims to "revolutionise" how water companies will tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage.

Water companies will face strict limits on when they can use storm overflows and must completely eliminate the harm any sewage discharge causes to the environment under the plans.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: "Water quality is a top priority for me. We are the first government to set out our expectation that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows and we are consulting on the single biggest programme in history to tackle storm sewage discharges.

"We are setting ambitious targets, delivering on our Environment Act and cracking down on those water companies that are not playing their part in delivering the clean water that the people of this country want to see."

This builds on a swathe of action to tackle water quality, including measures voted through as part of the Government’s Environment Act which include a duty on the Government to produce a statutory plan to reduce discharges from storm overflows; duties on water companies; and a power of direction for the Government to direct water companies in relation to Drainage and Sewerage Management Plans.

The Government is also consulting on targets to improve water quality, reduce nutrient pollution and reduce pollution by metals from abandoned mines. These targets will help deliver cleaner water, pushing all water companies to go further and faster to fix overflows, and helping to generate the most significant investment ever undertaken by water companies to revolutionise the sewer system.

Since 2015 the Environment Agency has brought 48 prosecutions against water companies, securing fines of over £137 million.

Last year, the Environment Agency and Ofwat launched a major investigation based on evidence that some water companies in England may not be complying with their permits, resulting in excess sewage spills into the environment, even in dry periods.

Some of the biggest fines were imposed last year – including a record £90 million fine for Southern Water in July for thousands of illegal discharges – making clear that polluters will be made to pay for damage to the environment.

‘Crucial action’ to tackle sewage discharge

For me, water quality is a huge priority, writes Environment Minister Rebecca Pow.

The West Midlands and Staffordshire, like many parts of England, has long suffered from an excessive and unacceptable use of storm overflows. Our Victorian sewerage infrastructure has struggled to cope with a growing population and more frequent heavy rainfall resulting from climate change. This too often has led to raw sewage being released into our waters – and I am determined that this must stop.

We have already set out our expectation that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows through a new policy statement, which specifies that Ofwat, the water regulator, must make sure that the water industry is delivering for the environment and for consumers across the country. We are the first government to take such a step, and we are also the government that passed the world-leading Environment Act – an absolute game changer for water quality.

Through the Act, we have put in place a package of measures to reduce the harms from storm overflows in this region and across England. There will be new duties on water companies like Severn Trent Water and South Staff Water, to reduce harm from storm overflows as well as duties on both water companies and the government to increase monitoring, reporting and transparency regarding the use of storm overflows. These measures were informed by the work of the Storm Overflows Taskforce which I set up. Monitoring of the network is increasing exponentially so that the Environment Agency will be monitoring 100 per cent of storm overflows by next year.

We are consulting on a number of ambitious targets under the Environment Act, including targets to clean up our water by reducing nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment, and pollution emanating from locations such as the Rivers Tame and Cole.

We have gone further still, and launched a consultation on the single biggest programme of work in history to address these storm overflows. This is excellent news for our bathing waters and the work complements other action that we are taking.

I have said time and again that the amount of sewage discharge by water companies into our rivers is unacceptable. They need to raise their game.

When it comes to water quality, the honest answer is there isn’t a simple fix, but this government is doing all we can to take crucial action across the board to push this vital agenda forward.

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