Raw sewage in English rivers: Companies pump waste into waterways more than 372,000 times in a year

Environmentalists say sewage being released into rivers is commonplace, as ITV News Science Editor Deborah Cohen reports

Water companies discharged raw sewage into English waterways 372,533 times last year, government data shows.

Annual figures released by the Environment Agency (EA) on Thursday came alongside a government pledge to overhaul the sewer system by 2050.

The latest data shows there were more than 2.6 million hours of spills into English rivers and coastal waters in 2021, with each spill lasting more than seven hours.

It reveals a slight drop on 2020 data that showed sewage was discharged more than 400,000 times.

Water firms are allowed to pump sewage into waterways after extreme weather to prevent it spilling into streets, but the Environment Agency said they are "allowing far too many sewage spills into rivers".

Sewage released in October 2021 closed 14 beaches along the Kent coast

EA Chief Executive Sir James Bevan said it is right that that water firms have come under public pressure to address the issue of sewage pollution, which can be devastating to human health, local biodiversity and the environment.

"Water companies need to act now to reduce their overflows to the minimum possible," he said.

Thames Water, United Utilities, Severn Trent and Anglian Water are among the firms set to face strict limits on when they can use storm overflows to expel raw sewage into waterways, under new government proposals.

Not all England's storm overflows are monitored but environment ministers say almost nine in 10 have monitoring devices.

Government plans for reducing sewage in waterways:

  • Eliminate environmental impacts of 3,000 storm overflows by 2035

  • Cut sewage pumped into bathing water sites, including beaches, by 70% by 2035

  • Reduce number of times sewage is pumped into waterways by 160,000 by 2040

  • Reduce number of times sewage is pumped into waterways by 320,000 by 2050

Industry body Water UK, which represents the water companies, did not comment on the raw sewage figures but welcomed the government's plans to overhaul England's sewer system.

"If implemented, these historic proposals represent the single biggest investment in the water environment since the 1990s," a Water UK spokesperson said.

"This level of transformation will require significant new investment over the next decade, building on the £3.1 billion of spending between now and 2025."

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: "We are the first government to set out our expectation that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows.

"Today, 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, critics hit out at the near 30-year timespan of the plan.

Environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey said that England's rivers will be "dead" by 2050, while Surfers Against Sewage urged people to join its 11 regional protests against water companies next month.

Earlier this month Severn Trent and Anglian Water promised to reduce their use of storm overflows following a report by the Environmental Audit Committee that said England’s rivers have become a "chemical cocktail" of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastics.

Professor Chris Whitty, England's Chief Medical Officer, said separating sewage from drinking water is one of the "greatest public health triumphs" of the last 200 years.

"The discharge of raw sewage, including from storm overflows into waters used by the public, should be an exceptionally rare event and we need to take action to reduce it substantially," he said.