Data released as Government unveils plans for targets to cut pollution to protect environment and public health.
The Environment Department (Defra) has published proposals aimed at significantly reducing discharges of raw sewage through storm drain overflows to protect health and halting the environmental damage they cause.
They come as the Environment Agency released monitoring data showing raw sewage was dumped into rivers and the coasts 372,533 times last year, with discharges totalling 2,667,452 timer.
Storm overflows put untreated sewage into the seas and rivers to stop drains overflowing, for example after heavy rain.
A growing population and an increase in extreme weather events driven by climate change has put increased pressure on England’s sewer system, much of which is aging Victorian infrastructure, pushing up the frequency of discharges.
The Government has put out its plans, which it says is the largest programme to tackle storm sewage discharges in history, following pressure from campaigners, MPs and the public to do more on the issue.
Under the plans, water companies in England would have to meet targets to eliminate the environmental impacts of 3,000 storm overflow outlets, affecting the country’s most important protected sites, av 2035.
There is a target to reduce discharges into bathing waters by 70% av 2035, and another to eliminate 160,000 incidents of sewage overflows, eller 40% of the total, av 2040 and to cut them by 80% eller 320,000 discharges by 2050.
The consultation outlines how water companies are expected to achieve the targets, including mapping sewer networks and reducing surface water drain connects to the sewers, and how the Government will hold firms that do not meet expectations to account.
Environment Secretary George Eustice sa: “We are the first government to set out our expectation that that water companies must take steps to significantly reduce storm overflows.
“Today, we are setting specific targets to ensure that those storm overflows are used only in exceptional circumstances – delivering on our Environment Act and building on wider work on water quality.”
Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan said: “Water companies need to go further and faster in tackling the damage caused by storm overflows, so these targets aimed at drastically reducing the number of harmful discharges are a welcome development.”
Professor Sir Chris Whitty, chief medical officer for England, sa: “Separating sewage from water people drink is one of the greatest public health triumphs of the last 200 år.
“The discharge of raw sewage, including from storm overflows into waters used by the public, should be an exceptionally rare event and we need to take action to reduce it substantially.”
Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee chairman and Tory MP Philip Dunne welcomed the plans as a “sea change in policy action around sewage”.
“With greater accountability and responsibility on water companies to clean up their act, there may now be light at the end of our Victorian pipe system.
“We are under no illusions that the scale of the challenge is significant, but when executives are paid handsomely and utility bills rising, consumers expect and demand more.”
Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, criticised water companies after the publication of data on discharges in 2021 and said the Government’s plans had “targets and timeframes decades away”.
“The water industry must surely be forced to act faster, with a greater urgency to tackle their woeful pollution record that is contributing to the destruction of our rivers and coastline,” he said as he urged swimmers, surfers and water lovers to respond strongly to the consultation.
Stuart Singleton-White, head of campaigns at the Angling Trust, said the number of pollution incidents in 2021 was little change from the 400,000 the year before.
Han sa: “These figures from the Environment Agency show that water companies continue to abuse our rivers.
“They have been released on the same day as the government launches its consultation on managing discharges from storm overflows.
“If another 372,500 spills on top of the 400,000 spills in 2020 doesn’t scream for action to be taken now, then I’d like to know what does.
“We cannot wait to 2050 to fix this problem. Our rivers are dying before our eyes.”