Britain’s bountiful rivers offer refuges for people as well as a source of food to countless natural wonders. But far too many of our rivers are polluted with sewage, and water companies and government are not doing enough to prevent it.
On Monday 16 October we released the results of a nine-month investigation into the state of rivers in England and Wales. ‘Flushed Away' provides a river health check and reveals that, shockingly, 55% of our failing rivers are polluted with sewage. That’s about 40% of all our rivers in England and Wales.
Constant discharge from outdated sewage treatment plants is the main problem. These discharges are legal but the levels of treatment are not sufficient to protect river health.
What’s more, there are over 18,000 sewer overflows across England and Wales – and about 90% of them discharge raw sewage (mixed with rainwater) directly into rivers. Overflows are supposed to happen only during extreme rainfall, to prevent sewage backing up into homes. But we found 8-14% of overflows are spilling sewage into rivers at least once a week, and between a third and a half at least once a month.
Sewage pollution causes rapid algae growth, starving the river of the oxygen that wildlife needs to survive. This affects animals like otters and kingfishers that prey on aquatic life.
Regulations are clearly not good enough, and people are flushing things we shouldn’t down drains and sinks – including wet wipes, kitchen fats and sanitary products as well. These block sewers, increasing the frequency of overflows.
Steps in the right direction
Over the past five years the sector has made great efforts to learn more about the problem. Almost a third of sewer overflows in England are now monitored and the Environment Agency has plans to increase this number dramatically by 2020.
The water industry also established an initiative called the 21st Century Drainage Programme to assess the capacity of sewers and come up with a plan for coping with demand.
We welcome all of this work but we need to see it go further and faster if it’s going to make a difference, and your voice can help make that difference.
We know that our rivers can keep providing water for people and nature if we look after them properly.
Unless we act now, the impact of sewage pollution the problem will become worse. Help us keep our rivers clean!
Please write to your MP to demand action – nature needs you to get involved!