Successive governments, regulators and water companies have turned a “blind eye” to sewage pollution in England and Wales, and are adopting “pre-Victorian practices” to allow raw effluent to flow into rivers, an MPs’ cross-party committee said.
In a damning report after a year of hearings of water companies, scientists and environmentalists, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee criticized regulators for a “satisfied” monitoring regime that was “outdated, underfunded and inadequate”.
It said it was “alarmed” by the extent of sewage discharges, and by the misreporting and major spills by water companies.
“Our investigation has uncovered several failures in monitoring, managing and enforcing water quality,” said Conservative committee chairman Philip Dunne. “Rivers are the veins of nature and must be protected.”
Bacteria found in sewage and manure can cause disease, but the quality of monitoring and information on river quality is “so poor” that it was difficult for people to get a complete picture of water health and make sensible decisions about when to go near the water, the MPs said.
Monitoring – which is often performed by means of rare sample checks – has also not been updated to identify microplastics, persistent chemical pollutants or antimicrobial resistant pathogens, all of which run the risk of becoming animal and human health. “Wastewater treatment removes some chemicals, but current treatment methods are not designed to handle the wide variety of chemicals used in modern life,” the committee said.
So insufficient is the information provided that the Environmental Agency, the environmental regulator, needs to create an online platform where civic scientists like the Windrush Against Sewage Pollution Campaigners or the Ilkley Clean River group could upload their data on water quality, which should be recognized by watchdogs, the MPs suggested.
An urgent review of operator’s self-monitoring is needed, the committee said, while the overflow permit system needs to be sharpened so that it only happens in extreme conditions as the laws intended. By the end of this year, water companies should be required to publish data on spill duration and volume every 15 minutes in an easily accessible format, he added.
According to some measures, the quality of river water has deteriorated in recent decades, the MPs said. Only 14 per cent of rivers in England and Wales are classified as the minimum “good” status, and not a single river in England has received a clean health bill for chemical pollution, according to the latest data from the Environmental Agency.
The MPs cited research done last year by the Wildlife and Countryside Link, an environmental coalition, which found that river water quality in England was among the worst in Europe.
There was “no quick fix for decades of underinvestment”, the report said. But “more assertive enforcement” by financial regulator Ofwat and the Environmental Agency was needed, MPs said. Why should investments be prioritized to boost water quality, as well as to limit bonus payments from managers at water companies that have violated overflow permits, he said. Fines for violating permits and for agricultural or other pollution must also be increased.
Orwat pointed to an ongoing investigation with the EA into non-compliance by companies at sewage treatment plants and said he would consider the recommendations. “Water companies’ performance in discharging sewage into the environment is not acceptable,” it said.
Water UK, representing water companies, said: “We support the committee’s urgent call for action to improve the health of England’s rivers. Now is the time to have an honest discussion on whether the current approach is sufficient to address the challenges facing our environment. ”
Research by the Financial Times published last month showed that investment in the sewage and wastewater network has fallen by almost a fifth over the past 30 years, from £ 2.9 billion a year in the 1990s to £ 2.4 billion now.