The Environment Agency is 25 years old today, but our rivers will not be celebrating. Yesterday, the EA announced that water companies had dumped raw sewage into our rivers for over 3 million hours from over 400,000 separate incidents. It is a shocking indictment of all involved in regulating our environment – the EA, OFWAT and their masters at DEFRA - that we are forced to rely on our rivers as a surrogate sewage network.
This wilful destruction of our rivers and their habitats is the result of incompetent regulation and a lack of investment in our sewage network because Government has prioritised customer bills and water industry profits over our environment.
A bold Private Members’ Bill sponsored by Philip Dunne MP promised to end this practice of dumping raw sewage by requiring water companies to separate the drains from the sewers and imposing reporting requirements and tougher regulation on water companies to help things along. The Bill died to be replaced by a much-diluted cocktail of DEFRA proposals, announced this week, for increased monitoring and to come up with a plan by September 2022 to reduce the dumping or combined sewage outflows (CSOs). The problem is that our rivers need more than plans.
In the announcement, DEFRA admitted that CSOs flows “had increased in recent years as … water infrastructure has not kept pace with population growth”.
This is an extraordinary admission given DEFRA is and has been responsible to ensure it does for at least 30 years since the Water Industry Act 1991. The question for successive Governments, and most importantly OFWAT, is why the hell hasn’t infrastructure kept pace? What were you doing? Or, more correctly, what have you been failing to do?
The truth is that, over the years since privatisation, in every periodic review cycle, OFWAT (with the active connivance of DEFRA) has chipped away at what was needed in terms of environmental investment in sewerage systems and has instead made the water companies ‘sweat their assets’, such that CSOs, that only used to operate in heavy downpours, now flow after just moderate rainfall or even less. In short, they made the rivers treat the sewage and not the treatment works.
Don’t just take our word for it…
This is what Ashley Smith of Windrush Against Sewage Pollution has to say…
“This is the result of 30 years of incompetent regulation and the squandering of the opportunities to get private investment to fund a proper sewage network. The massive profits were reaped, and we got this in return.
Many of the spills are illegal according to Environment Agency definition but are never prosecuted or even challenged. This is the outcome and DEFRA is entirely to blame.
Only 14% of rivers in good ecological status and over £58 billion water industry profit tell us all we need to know about Defra's so-called regulation of this shambles.
An out-of-control industry with the Environment Agency and DEFRA trying to pretend they have not been totally outwitted by the profit-hungry monopolies.”
And a final word from our VP, Feargal Sharkey:
“England’s rivers have become nothing more than an extension of the sewage system, polluted, poisoned and exploited for profit.
As a matter of urgency Government needs to wash the sewage from its hands and make strident efforts to regulate an industry that is so clearly out of control.”