Water companies face stricter limits on when they can use storm overflows and must ‘completely eliminate’ the ecological harm any storm sewage discharges cause to the environment. The changes were announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) on 31st March, 2022.
Defra said it would publish a Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan by September 2022, as required by the Environment Act 2021, that will set clear and enforceable targets that the water industry must meet. A consultation on the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan will seek views on the targets and other key elements of the plan. The consultation is open for six weeks and will close 12 May 2022.
Water companies discharged raw sewage into English rivers 372,533 times last year, a slight reduction on the previous year. The release of untreated sewage continued for a combined total of more than 2.7 million hours, another slight reduction on 2020, according to data released by the Environment Agency.
Defra has called it the ‘largest overhaul of the sewer system since the 1990s’ and predicts that the environmental impacts of 3,000 storm overflows (75%) will be eliminated by 2035. It has explained how water companies will be expected to achieve this target, including mapping sewer networks, reducing surface water connections and engaging in long-term collaborative planning.
The department has also detailed how government will hold companies that do not meet expectations to account. This includes a new monitoring and reporting framework as legislated for in the Environment Act that will significantly improve the ability of both Ofwat and the Environment Agency to take enforcement action where needed.
“We are setting specific targets to ensure that storm overflows are used only in exceptional circumstances.”
George Eustice, Environment Secretary said: “We are the first government to set out our expectation that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows. We are setting specific targets to ensure that those storm overflows are used only in exceptional circumstances – delivering on our Environment Act and building on wider work on water quality.”
However, Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of the Rivers Trust highlighted a ‘lack of urgency’ in the timelines. He told The Guardian: “This plan is going to need strong input from external bodies if it is going to outpace the twinned climate and nature crises we are currently facing. We want to have rivers where people and wildlife can thrive, but the target timelines in the plan are far too slow – I want to see this in my lifetime.”
CIEH responded that it was a ‘step in the right direction in tackling sewage discharges’. Dr Phil James, Chief Executive, CIEH said he looked forward to seeing the results of the consultation to protect environmental health.
He said: “It is important that sewage discharges into ecological areas and places frequented by the public become exceptionally rare events.”
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