The country’s waterways are ‘in a mess’ – and warming temperatures could be making matters worse, Zoe Tidman writes
The new report by the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said they were “in a mess”, with none having received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination.
It also touched upon how the climate crisis could be making matters worse.
This was to do with untreated and partially-treated sewage – which could be entering waterways more often due to heavier rainfull.
This form of pollution risks harming both wild swimmers and animals, with environmental campaigners warning raw sewage can kill fish and make people ill by spreading hepatitis, E.coli and gastroenteritis.
So how is it ending up in England’s rivers?
This is a normal part of an overflow system in place in the country’s sewerage network, which is designed to be used in rainy weather and when the system is under pressure.
While this is an important way of preventing backup in pipes and homes getting flooded, it also releases sewage into rivers and lakes before it has been properly treated.
Because of this, overflow systems are only meant to be used infrequently and in exceptional circumstances. However there have been suggestions they are being used more and more.
The EAC report said their use appears to be “increasingly routine as pressures on the sewerage network grow”.
It was revealed last year water companies legally discharged untreated sewage into rivers and coastal waters around England more than 400,000 times in 2019. While this was much higher than the year before, the Environment Agency put this down to better monitoring.
But officials admit they are being used more often than they should.
A recent report by a taskforce – which includes the Department for Food, Environment and Rural affairs, said many storm overflows were operating “more frequently than is acceptable to the public”.
It said it has been “increasingly difficult for the capacity of sewers to keep pace” with a number of factors, including changes in rainfall patterns.
The climate crisis is known to be causing heavier rainfall. Last year, the Environment Agency warned this was worsening the risk of floods across the UK.
This happens because warmer temperatures means the air can hold more moisture. So when it does rains, it pours.
Professor Nigel Watson from the Lancaster Environment Centre said the climate crisis was exacerbating the risks to public health and wildlife from poor water quality due to its impact on overflow systems.
“Discharges of untreated sewage have become increasingly commonplace as a result of more frequent intense rainfall and storm events, despite those discharges only being permitted by law in exceptional circumstances,” he said.
However, it is not the only factor that has been linked to overflow systems being relied on more, with a growing population and more urban development putting pressure on the sewage network as well.
Even so, heavy rainfall – the very thing overflows were set up to deal with – is certainly playing its part too.