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New report warns water companies “still routinely discharge” raw sewage into UK waters

A new report from campaigning organisation Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) says that water companies are still routinely discharging raw, untreated sewage into UK waters.

The SAS 2020 Water Quality Report says water companies were responsible for almost 3,000 raw sewage pollution incidents at Bathing Waters in England and Wales from licensed Combined Sewer Overflows from 1st October 2019 to 30th September 2020, impacting some of the most popular beaches in the country.

According to SAS, the report underlines the “woeful state” of water quality in the UK and the drivers of the destruction of blue habitats The UK missed its 2020 target for UK seas to meet Good Environmental Status, failing 11 out of 15 indicators of good marine health, while 86% of rivers and inland waterways in England are also failing to meet Good Ecological Status.

The report also highlights the elevated risk to human health from polluted waters. SAS said surfers and water users are increasingly being exposed to antibiotic resistant bacteria – one of the world’s biggest emerging health threats

The SAS has showcased 153 water user health reports from people falling ill after using the rivers and ocean for recreation. Reports included cases of gastroenteritis; ear, nose and throat infections; eye infections and in some cases, more serious long-term health effects.

The report also says that Southern Water has failed to issue sewage spill notifications for the majority of 2020 and that 21% of total reports of ill-health submitted come from within Southern Water’s boundaries. In 2019 690 Southern Water issued sewage spill notifications – to date, the water company has only issued 79 alerts this year.

Southern Water: "Storm releases are not classed as pollution but each release of rain run off and heavily diluted wastewater prevents the misery of internal flooding for our customers.”

A statement issued by Southern Water in response to the report said:

“We are fortunate enough to serve an outstandingly beautiful region. With more than 700 miles of coastline, 58 of our 83 beaches are rated as excellent for water quality and none fall below the acceptable standard.

"In addition to our statutory disclosures to our regulators, we run a voluntary notification scheme called Beachbuoy.

“An improved service is being finalised in consultation with stakeholder groups including Surfers Against Sewage. The new service uses improved software engineering combined with enhanced monitoring at our sites to speed the process of notification and reduce false positives.

“The introduction of the system has had teething problems – we believe that the software to prevent false positives was not operating correctly. Our software development teams have continued to refine the engineering over the summer.

“However in previous years notifications were sent out for all activations – meaning that many were false positives.

“During the last stakeholder workshop, we announced that the new system will provide notifications 365 days a year. Storm releases are not classed as pollution but each release of rain run off and heavily diluted wastewater prevents the misery of internal flooding for our customers.”

Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage, commented:

“Water companies consistently put profit before fully protecting the environment. This report demonstrates that rivers and oceans are being treated like open sewers as combined sewer overflows are used as a routine method for disposing of sewage, instead of in the exceptional circumstances under which it is permitted.”

“ Even worse, some – like Southern Water – are not even notifying the public when they do this so people cannot make informed decisions about their own health. This feels particularly horrifying in a year where we are all battling the COVID19 pandemic, a virus that is being tracked through sewage works.”

The report also highlights:

  • In addition to sewage discharge notifications, a further 2,642 pollution risk warnings were issued by regulators, indicating coastal pollution from agriculture and urban environments, and a potential risk to public health.
  • There are fundamental flaws in the water quality testing regime and Bathing Water classification process. Some of the worst pollution incidents are being wilfully ignored through ‘discounting’ in water quality tests carried out by regulators, giving a false view of the true state of recreational water quality. As a result of this loophole, it is suggested that 65 Bathing Waters received higher classifications than they should.
  • Despite some water quality progress over the last 30 years, the UK still ranks "a woeful 25th" out of 30 European countries for Bathing Water quality. Almost 35% of Bathing Waters still need some form of improvement to be elevated to the “excellent” standard.


Lewis Pugh, UN Patron of the Oceans, who wrote the foreword to the Water Quality Report, said the organisation is calling for:

  • An enhanced water-quality testing regime providing a true picture of the UK’s water quality, testing for emerging viruses and antimicrobial resistant bacteria as well as accurate real-time water quality information available all-year round for all UK inland and coastal Bathing Waters
  • World-leading water quality legislation with an Environment Bill that exceeds EU water quality standards as well as sewage legislation setting ambitious and legally binding targets to end untreated sewage discharge in all Bathing Waters by 2030.
  • Legislation that holds the same standards for both inland and coastal waters
  • Nature-based solutions to sewage pollution with increased investment and associated targets for the restoration of natural habitats to reduce pressure on the water systems and help prevent sewer overflows, whilst increasing biodiversity and tackling climate change
  • Investment from water companies in sewerage infrastructure to eventually end the use of emergency sewage overflows


SAS will present its #EndSewagePollution petition to Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice MP, digitally on Tuesday 10th November.

The petition represents tens of thousands of voices and cross sector organisations backed by millions including the Rivers Trust, Outdoor Swimming Society, British Canoeing and the Wildlife & Countryside Link.

According to SAS, this collective voice is starting to be heard - last month the chair of the Environmental Audit Committee Philip Dunne MP launched a Private Members Bill in the House of Commons.

The Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill seeks to provide a much needed and essential framework for water industry reform to end sewage pollution, restore England’s rivers and protect water users. The NGO has been supporting the drafting of the Bill, along with other members of the #EndSewagePollution coalition.

SAS is now asking other MPs to vote for the Bill when it goes for its 2rd reading in the House of Commons on 15th January 2021.

Click here to download the Surfers Against Sewage 2020 Water Quality Report

The original article can be viewed at waterbriefing.org