South's sewers to be 'overhauled' after waste leaked into waterways for thousands of hours

The government has unveiled plans to impose 'strict limits' on the amount of sewage water companies can discharge into the South's waterways.

A consultation launched by the Department for Food and Rural affairs, is proposing to stop waste entering waterways in what is being termed the "largest overhaul of the sewer system" in history. 

The move comes after figures revealed that water companies have leaked sewage into rivers and waterways across the south for over 200,000 hours in 2021 alone.

The consultation is calling for water companies to reduce discharges by 80% by 2050.

The statistics, published by the Environment Agency showed that Southern Water had leaked untreated sewage into Chichester Harbour for almost 5,000 hours last year.

Southern Water says it has set itself the 'ambitious' target of meeting the government target by 2030.

Nick Mills, head of storm overflow taskforce at Southern Water said, "We fully support the government changes to legislation and we welcome it.

"We want to see these storm overflows reduced as much as our customers, and we are working hard to work out how to do that."

  • Nick Mills, head of storm overflow taskforce at Southern Water

In a statement, Dr Toby Willison, the Chief Environment and Sustainability Officer for Southern Water, said “We welcome any move to cut storm releases. Protecting the environment is a key priority for Southern Water.

"While storm releases protect homes from flooding and are permitted during heavy rain, we have already committed to go further than the Government proposal by reducing them by 80% by 2030, a move which is backed by our customers.

"Our innovative storm water taskforce is already working on five pathfinder projects focussing on natural solutions such as water gardens and swales to cut or slow the flow of water into our systems.

"As part of our commitment to transparency, our Beachbuoy app shows in near real-time, 365 days a year, any release with the potential to affect bathing water. This has built awareness of the system and the need to work in partnership with our customers, councils, developers, NGOs and regulators to drive a significant change."

Southern Water has said it welcomes the new legislation

When ancient Victorian plumbing systems are overloaded with heavy rainfall - storm overflow valves allow raw sewage into the sea to stop it coming back up into our houses.

But although they were designed to be used occasionally, Environment Agency data shows they're discharging on a regular basis.

Swimmers and surfers have reported experiencing sickness and ear infections.

Elsewhere across the region, raw sewage was discharged into rivers by Thames Water for more than 160,000 hours in the past year.

There were also more than 150 incidents recorded in The River Windrush, which flows through part of Oxfordshire.

Campaigners say the contaminated water affects all water users and damages the environment.

  • Ash Smith from Windrush Against Sewage Pollution believes the water regulators are responsible.

In response to today's announcement, a Thames Water spokesperson said, "Our aim will always be to try and do the right thing for our rivers and for the communities who love and value them.

"We regard all discharges of untreated sewage as unacceptable and will work with the government, Ofwat and the Environment Agency to accelerate work to stop them being necessary and are determined to be transparent.

"We recently launched our river health commitments which includes a 50% reduction in the total annual duration of spills across London and the Thames Valley by 2030, and within that an 80% reduction in sensitive catchments. 

"We have a long way to go - and we certainly can't do it on our own - but the ambition is clear."

Environment Agency Chief Executive Sir James Bevan said: "Water companies have rightly been under increasing pressure from the Environment Agency, campaigners and the public for allowing far too many sewage spills into rivers, and we are holding the industry to account on a scale never done before.

"Sewage pollution can be devastating to human health, local biodiversity and our environment.

"Requiring water companies to provide this data is critical in ensuring everyone can see what is going on.

"I am pleased that we are on course to have all overflows monitored by next year, but the present situation is simply not good enough.

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