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The Sewage Discharge Crisis – A Better Plan for Water

Sewage Discharge
Tessa Wardley

Tessa Wardley

Director of Communications and Advocacy at The Rivers Trust

As the sewage discharge scandal continues to reverberate throughout UK politics Tessa Wardley, Director of Communications and Advocacy at The Rivers Trust sets out a better way to think about and improve our rivers

The joy of spending time by the river. The palette of greens and blues with golden sunlight glinting off the water surface; mayflies rising as damse+l bugs flit in their mating dances. A heron, poised, alert on one leg as a kingfisher darts past, trilling in a flash of azure and orange.

This may be our vision of wild, healthy, natural rivers valued by all. However, there is a new, darker story on the riverbank that tells of systemic failure and missed opportunity. The revulsion we all feel towards untreated waste in our rivers, and the shocking images of sanitary waste littering our riverbanks, has mobilised public opinion, united environmental groups around a common cause and is now acknowledged by all political parties – as well as the water companies themselves.

Sewage spilled for over two million hours across England and Wales in 2022 and the news dominated major media headlines. The Rivers Trust’s sewage map was first published in 2019. It was a hard fight to get access to the data but the map now allows the public to see the scale of the problem for themselves. The fight for transparency and open access to live spill data is ongoing.

The Rivers Trust Sewage Map Screenshot
Click here to see up to date sewage discharge in your area.

The Real Scandal behind Sewage Discharge Headlines

Sewage effluents carry with them a cocktail of microplastics, chemicals, oils, nutrients, and bacteria, which have an extremely detrimental effect on river health. However, the well-documented problems with sewerage only hint at greater problems and wider failures in the regulation and governance of our waterways. This is the real scandal and understanding it points us towards better solutions.

The focus on sewage can distract politicians, regulators, and policymakers from other key issues affecting the health of our waterways. We know that agriculture is a major contributor to poor river health, planning and development are putting pressure on water supply and quality, chemicals from a range of sources are poisoning our rivers, and physical modifications prevent river ecosystems from functioning effectively. However, with a tunnel-vision approach focusing only on sewage, these wider issues can get ignored while the ecological status of our rivers continues to deteriorate.

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The Importance of Long-term Thinking

As we build through local elections towards a general election, the pressure the parties are feeling can be seen in hastily prepared plans and consultations, rushed statutory instruments, and much-anticipated manifesto offerings. It is vital that we don’t allow knee-jerk reactions towards storm overflows to impede well-rounded, long-term, and nature-positive solutions to improve the overall health of our waterways.

The Rivers Trust has consistently advocated for an integrated approach to water management, underpinned by nature-based solutions such as tree and hedge planting, buffer strips alongside rivers, and restoring wetlands. We see a significant opportunity to address the various stressors on the water environment through the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA). The Government’s recent Plan for Water pledges “more funding for catchment groups and catchment-scale partnerships that coordinate action and investment where the rivers need it most”. The Plan talks a good game in terms of nature-based, catchment solutions. However, what we currently know is that catchment partnerships will be funded from an uncertain Water Restoration Fund reliant on environmental fines and penalties being channelled towards projects. Meanwhile, Ofwat’s recent accelerated infrastructure delivery fund of £1.6 billion has almost entirely invested in schemes pouring concrete and chemical treatments, rather than nature-based solutions. These ‘end-of-pipe’ solutions can be extremely costly to the planet as well as the pocket.

The Rivers Trust’s recent Annual Conference unpicked integrated approaches, and speakers highlighted the urgent need for holistic solutions. A common thread linking all panel discussions, and reflecting The Rivers Trust’s vision for a better plan for water, was an exploration of how collaborative, catchment and nature-based approaches offer an opportunity to be agile and strategic, cost-effective, and bolstered by community buy-in.

The catchment-based approach can source a wealth of data, infuse it with local insight and draw upon diverse stakeholders. Similar levels of investment in catchment and nature-based solutions can provide a much wider range of benefits in terms of ecosystem services. Nature-based solutions can increase biodiversity and carbon sequestration, reduce flood risk and increase resilience to climate change, all while reducing the level of nutrients and other pollution to our water and the wider environment.

There are examples of these more holistic solutions in action. On the River Petteril in Cumbria’s Eden catchment, United Utilities and the Environment Agency – in collaboration with the Eden Rivers Trust, local authorities, catchment-sensitive farming, Nestle, First Milk, and research institutions – used a catchment-based approach to deliver up to 60% reduction in phosphorus. These results were six times more effective than focusing on ‘end-of-pipe’ solutions alone and costed the same. This catchment-based approach can also attract private finance for larger-scale nature-based solutions, multiplying the input from the public purse.

Catchment-based, holistic solutions get everyone involved and empower local communities, businesses, and decision-makers, leading to an increase in community buy-in and a restoration of public trust.

Collaboration Must be the Solution

Our current political and media philosophy seems to focus on blame and division. The Rivers Trust is focused on how we can collaborate to find solutions. As Mark Lloyd, CEO of The Rivers Trust, said at the Conference, “The catchment-based approach is about people ganging up on the problem rather than on each other.” In a catchment-based approach, “everyone’s welcome, there are no barriers to entry, and it’s really about people getting together at a local scale to look at the problems in their catchment area and to look at how they can work together on solutions”.

In a cost-of-living crisis, cost-effective nature-based solutions must be considered as a priority in a better plan for water. This will ensure the public are enjoying the many benefits, including improved water quality, nature access, and a lower bill.

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