I have been filming underwater in UK rivers for well over 30 years. Over those years, I have seen everything, from remarkable sights of fish, to actually being covered in sewage when filming discharge points underwater. When I first started filming underwater, it was not uncommon for me to lay in a shoal of grayling 200 strong, move forward to 2021 and I am now filming grayling in pockets of 20 to 30. Grayling are susceptible to pollution due to having a small liver; think of them as the canaries of the rivers.
Freshwater is an environment that is often overlooked and neglected, but these stunning habitats hold some of the richest biodiversity in the world. Our rivers are a vital and vibrant ecosystem for many species. Ultimately, what happens with rivers will have a significant impact on our seas and oceans. We need to restore the diversity of these vital habitats back to how nature intended, before it is too late.
The pollution of England’s waterways
England’s waterways are facing their biggest fight to date, through pollution from sewage, agriculture, chemicals and plastics. When we should be striving to move forwards, sadly we are going backwards.
In 2020, water firms discharged untreated sewage into waterways 400,000 times, which equates to over three million hours of untreated sewage. That figure will rise in 2021. Only 14 percent of England’s rivers meet good ecological standard and all rivers in England sadly are polluted. In September 2000, the overall health of England’s waterways was at 92 percent (deemed of good ecological standard); that is how much we have lost.
Just a quick run down on some data from 2020:
- Yorkshire Water’s Wentworth sewage treatment works combined sewer overflows (STW CSO) near Rotherham in South Yorkshire discharged 7,740.41 hours of untreated sewage
- Thames Water’s Hamstead STW CSO was 4,111.95 hours of untreated sewage
- Anglian Water’s Canvey Island STW CSO was 6,397.75 hours
- Welsh Water’s Bodenham Moor STW CSO was 2,166.50 hours
- Northumbrian Water’s Allendale STW CSO was 3,378.00 hours
- Severn Trent’s Duffield STW CSO 8,085.30 hours
Collectively, those six combined sewer overflows discharged more than 31,500 hours of untreated sewage into our waters, equating to just over 1,315 days in one year.
There are more than 14,000 more CSOs. It truly is staggering.
Discharge of raw sewage
While shareholders have become rich, the freshwater environment has suffered. Despite legislation being in place that only allows the discharge of raw sewage in exceptional circumstances, sewage continues to be discharged in minimal or no rainfall.
Surely, these rivers are equally as important as the rest of the natural world. They have shaped our towns, villages, cities and countryside. With our help, placing nature first instead of profit, these areas can become vibrant stunning ecosystems once again. We owe it not just to ourselves but to nature itself; after all, it is nature we need.
The beauty of rivers is that they can recover if nurtured. But with the current state of our country, this looks less likely by the day. The environment bill, now in its final stages, highlights this perfectly.
Environment bill sewage amendment
On 20 October 2021, a Lord’s amendment to the environment bill, which would have placed a legal duty on water companies in England and Wales “to make improvements to their sewerage systems and demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage” was blocked in the Commons. This caused a public outcry.
But 22 Conservative MPs voted against their party to support the Duke of Wellington’s clause, including two from Yorkshire – David Davis and Philip Davies – and Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow. Dunne stated:
“We need to ensure that water companies feel that provision is there in statute to compel them to pay attention to the issue … in my view there should be a primary legislative duty on water companies, to persuade them to treat this issue with sufficient seriousness”.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) said:
“When it comes to sewage discharge, my constituents do not want another taskforce, an aspirational target, or a discretionary duty of care.
“They do not even want more consultation. They just want a legally enforceable obligation on our water companies to stop them routinely discharging raw sewage into our rivers and seas. That is the bottom line. The bill, as it is framed, does not go far enough.
“[The water companies] must show that they have improved the sewerage system, with the government and their agencies bringing all their forces to bear to make sure that they abide by that, and that when they do not, they are properly punished. That is the minimum our constituents should expect.”
The government later put forward a concession that aims to reduce the amount of raw sewage dumped into our waters. This was passed by MPs. But the concession will still allow water companies to discharge untreated sewage into our waters for many years to come. It’s no way near good enough, and a far cry from the Duke of Wellington’s amendment, that would have forced water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent this happening.
Cost of maintaining our sewage system
In his speech, Loughton went on to say:
“We have heard the argument that the cost of this legal obligation would be too high because of the nature of the Victorian sewage system, and the government cannot therefore require water companies to act. We note that the water companies have been making profit out of this system for years when they had a duty to maintain and innovate not to pollute our rivers.
“It will only be when water companies are required to stop polluting our rivers that they will properly manage their infrastructure.”
Some of the estimates noted in the mainstream media recently on the cost of upgrading the sewage system across the UK range from £160bn to £660bn; this latter figure was used by Robbie Moore, MP for Keighley. Yet the DEFRA storm overflow task force states that the actual cost of progressively eliminating the worst and most damaging sewage pollution is £3.9–£62.7bn.
Private profit on utilities
Water companies have been making profit out of this system for years when they had a duty to maintain and innovate, not pollute our rivers. Between 1991 and 2019, the water companies paid out over £57bn in dividends to parent companies, mostly from outside the UK.
As consumers who have been paying water rates or bills, the public rightly believes that we’ve already paid for maintenance and management of our sewage system. These costs should therefore be met by the companies who’ve been receiving our money. It should not be possible for water companies to be paying chief execs over £1.5m in salaries per head on top of paying huge dividends, whilst racking up huge debts and not investing enough in the sewage system to upgrade it to our current needs.
We are going backwards. Sadly, nature is affected once again and comes second to profit.
You can see if your local waterway is fit to play in HERE.