A major investigation into more than 2,000 sewage treatment works has been launched by the Environment Agency and regulator Ofwat, amid concerns over how much raw sewage is being illegally pumped into rivers, streams and coastal areas.
It comes after a series of investigations by ITV News, which revealed sewage is being released into British waterways on an “industrial scale”.
With new monitors due to be fitted to outflows to examine the extent of the problem, water companies have admitted they could be using the system more than their licenses actually permit.
Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said: "Any water companies in breach of their permits are acting illegally. This is a major issue of public trust.
"Water company boards must certify every year that they have adequate resources to fulfil their regulated activities.
"Only now, just before new monitors are installed, have companies reported concerns over potential problems.”
She warned that any breaches would be prosecuted where necessary.
Last month, ITV Central, ITV West Country and ITV Wales released the findings of a joint investigation focused on the River Wye.
It revealed that in 2020 alone, more than 33 years worth of sewage was released into the Wye’s catchment area by Dwr Cymru Welsh Water - with some Combined Storm Overflows (CSOs) pumping out constantly for months on end.
They are are only supposed to be used in emergencies to prevent the sewerage system becoming flooded.
And in April, ITV Central reported how Severn Trent had dumped some 64 years worth across the area it operates during the same 12 months.
Interim Ofwat chief executive David Black has now written to bosses at all water companies across the country, stating they “must show a step-change in culture and commitment”.
“The current levels of storm overflow discharges into rivers cannot continue, and the water sector must tackle this,” he said.
“Addressing storm overflows must take place alongside wider actions to improve rivers to good ecological status.
“More innovation, greater use of nature-based solutions, and significant contributions from other sectors, are also needed to care for our rivers. We see signs of this shift within some companies and we need this to be a change across the whole industry.”
The issue has become a hot topic for people in recent months, with mass outrage online after the government voted against including provisions to force water companies to reduce use of the CSOs in its new Environment Bill. It later U-turned.
Independent consumer watchdog CCW said any fines issued as a result of the investigation should go towards repairing damage caused by the CSOs.
Chief executive Emma Clancy said: “It’s impossible to overstate the seriousness of this investigation. Customers pay their money to wastewater companies in good faith, expecting them to be able to be trusted to provide high quality services while protecting the environment.
“Should this investigation lead to prosecutions we would want to see those fines used locally to repair the environmental harm that has been caused.”