A freedom of information request from the Liberal Democrats revealed last week that over 72 billion litres of sewage had been pumped into the River Thames since 2020. Over 2020 and 2021, two Yorkshire rivers – the River Nidd and the River Wharfe – received almost approximately 1.4 billion litres of untreated wastewater.
Data published earlier this year by Professor Peter Hammond, who works in conjunction with Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP), indicated that in 2020, the Nidd had 792,500,000 litres of sewage discharged into it, while the Wharfe was polluted by 255,000,000 litres in the same year. In 2021, the Nidd was again polluted by 365,000,000 litres of sewage.
These numbers are incredibly difficult to imagine and to frame a reference to understand them. What is often used as the comparison is the number of Olympic swimming pools that this would equate to – but again that reference only works if you are a keen swimmer. In total, over 2020 and 2021, the River Nidd was polluted by 1.1 billion litres of sewage, or 463 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Volumetric data is needed
In the review by WASP, the point was made that measuring the volume of discharges was important as, “The volume of untreated sewage discharges could be a valid basis for tariffs and for fines”.
It acknowledged that, “much of the media discussion of untreated sewage discharges has relied on reporting annual spill frequency and spilling hours, because these are the only summary data immediately available”, but suggested that the national outrage over polluted waterways may change the industry. “With the current public appetite for change of behaviour by both the water industry and the regulatory bodies, now is the time to reconsider volumetric monitoring of storm overflows.”
The review criticised the lack of action on volume meters, suggesting that recommendations had been ignored:
“In January 2021, the installation of volume meters on storm overflows was recommended by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) in its report ‘Water Quality in Rivers’. Sadly, this and other EAC recommendations were ignored and omitted from the Environment Act that had its first reading in January 2020 and received Royal Assent in November 2021.”
The review also evaluated that its own methodology was by no means perfect, but that it revealed a larger and more worrying picture of illegal behaviour and levels of wanton pollution, “…but even this limited review of just 30 [sewage treatment works] has revealed some disturbingly gross discharges of untreated sewage, often from relatively small STWs and often in breach of permitted conditions and hence illegal”.
Bathing status applications
Gaining bathing water status is no protection against sewage pollution. As noted in the review, “in North Yorkshire in December 2020, the River Wharfe at Cromwell, Ilkley was the first location in England to receive bathing water quality status. Since then, river quality there has remained poor”.
Campaigners for the River Nidd are also applying for bathing water status for a section of the Nidd at Knaresborough, with local MP Andrew Jones commenting as part of the application that, “Bathing water designation would mean that the Environment Agency will monitor the water quality at the Lido Leisure Park during the bathing season and classify it as excellent, good, sufficient, or poor. This would enable people to make informed decisions when they swim in the river so they can enjoy the many benefits of wild swimming”.
However, the WASP review revealed that the River Nidd alone from 2016 to 2022 received 1.131 billion litres of untreated wastewater, with 603 million litres coming from Pateley Bridge and 420 million litres from Harrogate North. It is notable that, at present, water companies are under no legal obligation to report the amount of sewage discharged to paying customers – a practice that needs to change.
Yorkshire Water states ‘there is more to do on storm overflows’
A spokesperson from Yorkshire Water did not challenge or refute the figures suggested by Professor Hammond. Instead they told Yorkshire Bylines:
“Water companies have been asked by government and regulators to focus on measuring the frequency of storm overflows and reporting when they are in use, rather than volumes of wastewater discharged.
“Of course, we recognise there is more to do on storm overflows and have announced a £180mn investment to tackle our most frequently spilling overflows in the next two years. We’ve also submitted our 2025–2030 plans to Ofwat for approval, which outline our largest ever environmental investment, including £1.4bn on measures to reduce discharges from storm overflows.”