‘Rivers full of sewage’: England’s endangered chalk streams pumped with untreated liquid waste

Tom Clarke

Former Science Editor

ITV News Science Editor Tom Clarke reports on the sewage being pumped into serene and rare chalk streams

Chalk streams are sometimes called England’s coral reefs. In fact, they are rarer than that.

There are only around 200 chalk streams in the world and 85% of them are in England.

They’re unique, because their water is filtered through chalk aquifers. That keeps the water crystal clear and at a relatively constant temperature. Trout, salmon, kingfishers, otters and unique invertebrate life depend on them.

So it may be a surprise to learn that water companies spend quite a lot of time pumping water out of them, and putting untreated sewage in.

On Tuesday morning ITV News went down to the River Chess in Buckinghamshire where Thames Water was letting untreated effluent (liquid waste) flow into the chalk stream.

Water companies have licenses to put sewage into rivers when treatment works reach capacity — the only other option is to let sewage back up into homes. But the licenses only allow them to do this in emergencies, for example when treatment works are overwhelmed by floods.

It did rain heavily on Monday night, hence the discharge, Thames Water told us. But so far this year, the company has run sewage into the river on 96 separate occasions according to local campaigners.

And the national picture is similar. According to Environment Agency data there were 292,846 discharges of effluent into England’s rivers and seas in 2019.

In 2020 that rose by 37% — in part due to better monitoring — to 403,171.

There were 403,171 discharges of effluent into England’s rivers and seas in 2020.

“The simple truth of the matter is, water companies have, since they were privatised, paid out over 60 billion pounds in dividends to their shareholders.

"They got 60 billion pounds in dividends. We got rivers full of sewage,” says Feargal Sharkey, former frontman of ‘70s punk band The Undertones, and now chalk stream campaigner.

He and other campaigners don’t just blame the water companies, but a weak regulatory and enforcement regime that doesn’t require more of their profits to be diverted into improving, rather than maintaining ageing sewage and drainage infrastructure.

On the River Chess, Thames Water told us it is investing to improve the capacity of the water treatment works by 39% to reduce sewage overflows.

It’s also working in partnership with local river and angling groups on three different chalk stream catchments for which they have responsibility to reduce sewage discharge. It told us it is also reducing the amount of water they take out of rivers to meet consumer demand.

Water UK, which represents the water industry as a whole, says four companies, Thames, Affinity, Southern and Anglian, have pledged to safeguard chalk streams in their regions.

It also told us companies nationally are investing £5 billion on environmental improvements. It said companies were committed to reduce the amount of water they are taking out of chalk streams.

Feargal Sharkey, former frontman of ‘70s punk band The Undertones, is now a chalk stream campaigner.

But campaigners say those investments appear to be doing little to improve the situation. They are calling on Ofwat the water regulator and the Environment agency to do more to require companies to protect rivers.

“Both of them need to get on with their job,” says Sharkey. “And it's past time that Number 10 started addressing this problem. Right now all of these rivers are dying and you’re in charge”.

The Environment Agency told us it “does not permit companies to discharge untreated sewage into any chalk stream on a day-to-day basis”. Adding: “Water companies, farmers, landowners, individuals and government regulators need to work together to protect and enhance these rare environments”.

The water regulator Ofwat told us: “There is an urgent need to alleviate pressure on chalk streams and other precious parts of our ecosystem. Billions of pounds will be invested in the coming years to do just that”.