Why is sewage released into rivers and the sea? – BBC News


Water companies released record spills of raw sewage into the sea and rivers in England in 2023.

Rules allow a limited discharge of excess sewage during periods of excess rain, but there is also evidence of “dry spills”, which can damage the local environment and pose a health risk to swimmers.

How much sewage is released into the sea and rivers in England?

Sewage spills into England’s rivers and seas by water companies more than doubled in 2023.

Water UK, the industry body for sewerage companies, said it was “unacceptable”, but that the record levels were due to heavy rain and increased data collection.

However, the Environment Agency said that increased rainfall does not override water companies’ responsibility “to manage storm overflows in line with legal requirements”.

Some environmental charities blame water companies for a failure to fix leaky pipes and other damaged infrastructure – and criticise the regulator for not forcing them to act.

Why is sewage released into the sea and rivers?

Most of the UK has a combined sewerage system, meaning that both rainwater and wastewater – from toilets, bathrooms and kitchens – are carried in the same pipes.

Usually, all the waste is carried to a sewage treatment works.

But capacity can sometimes be exceeded during heavy rainfall, especially if dry ground cannot quickly absorb large quantities of water.

This could lead to inundation of sewage works and potential flooding of homes, roads and open spaces.

The system is therefore designed to overflow occasionally, and discharge excess wastewater into the sea and rivers.

However, there is evidence that some water companies also spill sewage when it is not raining.

Without rainwater to dilute the waste, this can lead to higher concentrations of sewage entering waterways – and is therefore illegal.

Water companies which are found to have breached the rules by spilling on dry days or failing to meet other conditions can be fined or prosecuted.

What is the government doing to tackle sewage discharges?

As part of this, it said polluters could face unlimited fines in the future, which was confirmed in July 2023.

The government says penalties from water companies will be re-invested into a new Water Restoration Fund which aims to improve water quality.

But then-Environment Secretary Therese Coffey said there was “no way we can stop pollution overnight”, given the major changes needed to the water system.

Industry body Water UK has announced plans to almost double spending to pay for upgrades and cut sewage discharges.

It said this would be the “most ambitious modernisation of sewers since the Victorian era”, but that customer bills would have to rise by £156 a year to cover the cost.

What are the health risks of swimming in polluted water?

Swimmers are warned to stay away when untreated sewage is discharged into the sea.

The contaminated water could lead to serious illnesses.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Rowers taking part in the 2024 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race were told not to swallow any splashed water

How can I know if the sea near me is clean?

Every week between May and September, the Environment Agency measures the water quality at hundreds of “bathing sites” across England, and in some places it issues daily pollution risk forecasts.

There are similar websites where you can find out about beaches and bathing water in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland.

Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage has created an interactive map showing pollution risk warnings along the coast and rivers.

How clean are UK waters overall?

However, overall water quality has been monitored for decades. This also accounts for other sources of pollution, such as agriculture.

  • 14% of rivers and lakes
  • 19% of estuaries
  • 45% of coastal waters
  • 93% of designated bathing waters

In Scotland, around two-thirds of surface waters are classed as having “good” ecological status.

In Wales the figure is 40%, and in Northern Ireland 31%.

Has the UK’s water quality got worse since Brexit?

They said that since Brexit, the UK had “chosen to lower its water quality standards”.

The UK is no longer bound by EU environmental legislation. But those laws did not directly regulate the frequency or number of sewage discharges.


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