The equivalent of 64 years worth of raw sewage was dumped into rivers and streams last year by Severn Trent Water, new figures have revealed.
According to data released by the Environment Agency, the water company - which operates services across the Midlands, as well as the south west - released untreated waste into waterways on a total of 60,982 occasions.
Charity The Rivers Trust called the figure “shocking”, and said the volume of contaminated wastewater reaching the rivers “shows that our current approach and infrastructure, managing storm water in particular, needs a radical overhaul”.
Over the course of 2020, the figures show that the discharges from Severn Trent went on for 558,698 hours between them - equivalent to 23,279 days, or 64 years.
Water companies are permitted to release sewage into rivers to help prevent flooding when the system becomes overwhelmed, for example after periods of prolonged or heavy rain, in what are known as ’storm overflows’ (SOs). These are monitored by the Environment Agency, and the figures released each March.
But The Rivers Trust’s deputy technical director Michelle Walker said the amount of times the overflow system was being used should ring “alarm bells”.
She added: “If storm overflows work as designed, they will discharge less than 20 times per year – when there has been extreme rainfall. When that happens, SOs prevent our homes and businesses being flooded, protecting lives and livelihoods.
“The 2020 data indicates that, appallingly, almost 1 in 5 overflows across England are discharging more than 60 times per year, a number which is supposed to trigger an Environment Agency investigation.
“This is a staggering statistic and The Rivers Trust is now calling for greater transparency and publication of real-time monitoring of overflows which are discharging more than 20 times per year so the appropriate measures can be taken to improve the situation.”
Overall in 2020, water companies released untreated sewage into rivers and streams more than 400,000 times, for more than three million hours - the equivalent of 342 years.
Severn Trent Water, which has its headquarters in Coventry, recorded the second highest number of hours of any water company in the country, and came in third for the number of instances.
Highest on the list in the Midlands was the Duffield Sewage Treatment works, which used the storm overflow system for a staggering 8,085 hours over 360 different occasions. The Environment Agency data revealed maintenance issues have been identified at the site.
It comes after ITV Central revealed in a special report on pollution in the River Wye through Herefordshire how wildlife is already dying off, as phosphate levels consistently come in above the legal limit.
A Severn Trent spokesperson said storm overflows played a "vital role" in protecting homes from flooding - and insisted that the company was investing in improving water quality in rivers.
"They act as a safety valve to make sure our system isn’t overwhelmed and, while they do result in spills into rivers that are predominantly made up of rainwater, they also ensure fewer people have to suffer flooding than would otherwise be the case," they added.
“We are committed to improving the quality of all of the rivers in our region. In addition to the £355m we have already invested, we’re looking to spend a further £200m over the course of the next five years and will continue to work closely with the Environment Agency and our other environmental partners to achieve this.”
Meanwhile, the Environment Agency said that monitoring of the sewerage network had increased enormously, from 800 overflows monitored in 2016 to more than 12,000 in 2020.
A spokesperson said the agency was also playing a leading role in the Storm Overflows Taskforce, which was looking into ways to reduce harm from the overflows.
"A growing population and climate change means they will discharge more often," they said.
“The Environment Agency is working actively with the water companies to ensure overflows are properly controlled and the harm they do to the environment stopped.
“Increased monitoring and reporting of storm overflows is part of the solution. It means everyone can see exactly what is happening, and will help drive the improvements and future investment that we all want to see, with £1.1billion of investment already planned for the next four years."