Huge volumes of untreated sewage and storm water are pouring into English rivers, according to data released by the Environment Agency (EA).
The Rivers Trust charity described the figures as shocking and appalling and is calling for publication of real-time monitoring of overflows discharging more than 20 times a year.
The EA data found storm overflows polluting more than 400,000 times and for more than 3 million hours during 2020 in England alone. It also revealed that almost one in five overflows in England are discharging more than 60 times a year – a number supposed to trigger an EA investigation.
Michelle Walker, The Rivers Trusts’s deputy technical director, said: “We’ve seen an increase in the recreational use of rivers during the pandemic, and this is likely to continue into the summer under current travel restrictions.
“Real-time data is only linked to bathing water sites in England. This works well at the coast, but with only one bathing water site declared on a river (at Ilkley), we want to see more real-time data being made available so that more river users, not just swimmers, can be informed of risks.”
The Rivers Trust has been campaigning for greater transparency and welcomed the EA publishing the event duration monitoring (EDM) data for the first time, as this is “vital” to understanding the extent and impact of pollution.
The charity acknowledged the sector has made progress in monitoring pollution but warned the “urgent work to clean up our rivers has barely begun”. It added that this problem is set to worsen, as extreme rainfall intensity will increase by 10% by 2050, according to UK government data, and 20% by 2080.
Water companies have pledged to investigate and improve 800 overflows before 2025, at a cost of £1.1bn – but this only represents 5% of the 14,000-plus storm overflows declared. The Rivers Trust is campaigning for this work to be accelerated, and for increased investment in infrastructure, and the implementation of nature-based solutions.
The charity said it was also important that consumer awareness is boosted so that households know not to put oils and sanitary products into the sewage system.