Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill

Philip Dunne MP launches new Bill to tackle river pollution

Salmon & Trout Conservation warmly welcomes the introduction of the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill, aimed at tackling the unacceptable levels of raw sewage being discharged into our rivers and streams.

Rt. Hon Philip Dunne MP for Ludlow has published his Private Member’s Bill designed to tackle river pollution from untreated sewage and improve water quality.

In 2019, raw sewage was discharged into rivers across England and Wales for over 1.5 million hours, compromising these vital habitats for wildlife and endangering the health of people who use our rivers for recreation.

Philip Dunne MP, who is also chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee, said:

“Our rivers are a vital part of our natural heritage. It is right the Government has committed to restoring at least three quarters of our waters to their natural state.

But it is clear from last week’s latest assessment from the Environment Agency that we are a long way from achieving that, with fewer than one in six of our rivers in good health. This threatens the aquatic life and iconic species that rely on these precious habitats, such as freshwater fish, kingfishers, otters and dippers.

The discharge of untreated sewage is a major part of the problem. It poses a significant health risk to those who wish to enjoy our rivers for leisure and recreation.

The River Severn and its tributaries the Clun, Corve, Kemp, Onny, Rea, Teme and Worfe all flow through my constituency. They are nothing like as healthy as when I was a child, but they should be.

That is why I have brought forward this Bill, which aims to cut discharges of raw sewage into our rivers - protecting our precious habitats for wildlife and people to enjoy.”

The Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill places a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and other inland waters. The Bill will require water companies to set out plans progressively to reduce their reliance on combined sewer overflows (CSOs). It proposes increasing levels of transparency, as firms will be mandated to report publicly not just on the frequency and extent of sewage discharges from CSOs and any other sewer catchment assets, but also on the impact on water quality as this is enabled by advances in technology.

Nick Measham, CEO S&TC said,

“I am delighted to see this vital Bill introduced and have been pleased that S&TC was able to make use good use of the donations we receive from members, and elsewhere, to allow S&TC’s lawyer to play a significant role in drafting the Bill and the Explanatory Notes.”

Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill 

Sewage Bill (Explanatory Notes)

The Bill also proposes measures to upgrade drainage infrastructure to separate household sewage from surface water drainage, helping reduce the risk of overspills. It includes measures to reduce harmful products such as non-biodegradable wet wipes, commercial fats and oils from being disposed down the drains. It also proposes measures to expand the number of inland bathing waters and establish targets to increase those classified as “good” or “excellent”.

Guy Linley-Adams, solicitor with Salmon and Trout Conservation said,

“The Bill is a welcome and necessary correction to the post-privatisation legislation for controlling sewage pollution of rivers, streams and lakes. As we leave the EU, we need to increase the level of ambition and this Bill does that. All sides in this debate, including water companies, recognise that we need to build back better post-Covid, including in our water infrastructure, so this Bill deserves, and I’m sure will get, very strong cross-party support.”

The Bill has additional support from environmental charities and NGOs including,

The Rivers Trust, Surfers Against Sewage, The Wildlife Trusts, The Angling Trust, Chalk Aquifer Alliance.

We encourage you to share the Bill with your local MP and lobby them to support it.

Who is my MP? https://www.writetothem.com

Notes

  1. The Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP has been Member of Parliament for Ludlow since May 2005. In February 2020 he was elected Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee. He is also a member of the Conservative Environment Network Parliamentary Caucus.
  1. Untreated sewage is discharged directly into rivers from licensed Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) managed by the 9 water and sewerage companies in England, which are permitted by the Environment Agency (EA) to exceed consented concentrations during periods of heavy rainfall. Recent data obtained by the Guardian established 6,508 inland CSOs discharged untreated sewage into rivers over 200,000 times across England for over 1.5 million hours in 2019, meaning that they likely occurred far more regularly than just during periods of intense rainfall.
  1. The government set an ambition in the 25 Year Environment Plan to improve at least three quarters of UK waters and return them to their natural state. However, the latest assessment by the Environment Agency showed that just 16% of England’s rivers meet the criteria for ‘good ecological status’, unchanged from 2016.

Time for bespoke regulatory targets for all chalkstreams

Chalkstreams are as internationally rare and ecologically important as coral reefs or rainforests, and 85% of the world’s chalkstreams are found in England.

With this comes a responsibility to protect them, something at the moment we are failing to deliver, with evidence of many stretches running dry, whilst others are clogged with nuisance algae and huge declines in flylife, the base of the food web.

Our Riverfly Census work has shown chalkstreams are under huge pressure from excess phosphates, fine sediments and chemicals, all exacerbated by vast over-abstraction. Chalkstreams are groundwater fed- when rain falls it sinks into the chalk ground through fissures and cracks, turning into underground oceans of trapped rainwater. Natural refilling of this underground water is essential to ensure our chalkstreams stay flowing. Yet, because this water is cool and stable and therefore ‘cheap’ to use, it is heavily relied upon and much is removed by water companies to become the water we use in our homes.

We, at Salmon & Trout Conservation, are calling for: New ambitious, bespoke regulatory
targets for all chalkstreams which recognise and manage them as the unique habitats they are.

Currently all our rivers are managed under the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Within
this all rivers are classified the same, working towards common ecological targets. Yet, our
data confirms invertebrate communities in chalkstreams are biologically distinct from other
rivers. So, this generic, one size fits all approach cannot adequately protect them. ‘Good’
according to WFD is not good enough for chalkstreams. By developing new chalkstream
specific ecological targets for all chalkstreams it will identify the elements which make
chalkstreams so special and protect and restore them.

To ensure all our chalkstreams are healthy and sustainable into the future requires radical
action now and a step change in the way we manage our water environment. It will require
new bespoke regulatory targets alongside a properly resourced Environment Agency to
deliver and enforce regulations, and an ambitious timeframe to stop all water company’s
reliance on ‘cheap’ chalk aquifer water and drive investment into alternative water supply
solutions.

We cannot afford to tinker around the edges any longer. The more degraded our
chalkstreams become, the more similar they are to other rivers. We are losing the things
which make them special. We have an international duty and moral obligation to raise the
bar and sustainably protect these precious habitats into the future.

Phosphorus, Chickens and the River Wye

S&TC’s agricultural policy is simple; incentivise farmers to invest in their infrastructure and spread the word about modern soil management, but always be prepared to use the current legislation to regulate persistent offenders...

Paul Knight, S&TC Fisheries Consultant

George Monbiot writing in the Guardian recently highlighted the dreadful state of Welsh rivers.  He focussed on the Wye, where intensive chicken farming discharges phosphate (P) at far greater levels than the safe carrying capacity of the river, leading to awful water quality and subsequent impact on its wildlife.  The NFU hang on the coattails of Natural Resources Wales, who state that P has improved in the river over recent years, but rather than crow that excess nutrient is no longer a problem, it is important to understand the way P acts in a river, and why no-one should be complacent about the state of the Wye or its sister Welsh rivers.

The easiest way to explain P’s impact on a river is to think of a cliff gently sloping down until it reaches an edge, which then drops vertically into the sea – let’s give the cliff-edge a value of 30 and the top of the gentle slope as 100.  P at 40 has broadly the same impact on water quality as it does at 100 – too much nutrient leading to excess algae growth, discoloured water and the ‘dirty’ riverbed to which George Monbiot  alludes, but once it drops back to 30, the improvement is dramatic, and the symptoms fall away, you might say, over the cliff edge and into the sea.

This rather simplistic explanation has an important message, cutting P back from 100 to, say, 50, is a huge improvement, to which government agencies and the likes of the NFU will crow about the great job being done.  However, in terms of water quality improvement that actually supports more resilient and healthy life in the river, it is virtually useless.  More work needs to be done to reach 30 at the cliff edge, and then the river really starts a rapid improvement.

So why is excess P a problem to water life, apart from making the river environment murky and the bed gravels covered in algae?  S&TC’s Riverfly Census showed that P, along with sediment and toxic chemicals, are the biggest river polluters across the UK, and that agriculture is their main source. Our further research proved that high P levels, particularly in conjunction with sediment, kills water insects, the vital basis of a river’s food chain.  So, P, especially in conjunction with sediment, is actually toxic to water life unless kept down to natural values, 30 in our scenario.

S&TC is now using this evidence to press Welsh government and Natural Resources Wales, and Defra/Environment Agency (EA) in England, to take river pollution seriously and tighten agricultural regulation to ensure that the wildlife of rivers such as the Wye have a much more natural environment in which to thrive.  We can never return our watercourses to their truly natural state, there will always be human impact in such a closely managed countryside as we have in the UK, but there are issues we can do something about if we have the political commitment to address them, and cutting back agricultural impact on our rivers is definitely one of those.

Strong regulation is a must, but we do not just advocate the stick approach.  If you read the executive summary of the Axe Report, you will see that financial incentives for farmers to improve their infrastructure can produce dramatic results, albeit that they were threatened with heavy regulation if they didn’t comply.  Persuading farmers to adopt better soil management techniques is also critical, so that P is kept where it belongs, on fields, rather than being allowed to leach into rivers.

However, the most important aspect of the Axe example is that sufficient resources were made available to the EA to properly address the poor ecological state of the river, and they did that by visiting farms and advising farmers, many of whom had no idea they were polluting the river.  The result was nearly £4m of inward investment into updated infrastructure, and that is the sort of funding we need replicated across the whole of Wales and England if we are to protect our rivers into the future.

So, S&TC’s agricultural policy is simple; incentivise farmers to invest in their infrastructure and spread the word about modern soil management, but always be prepared to use the current legislation to regulate persistent offenders so that it becomes uneconomic for farmers to pollute watercourses such as the Wye.  If we can achieve that, then our wild fish and all other water wildlife will have the best possible chance to thrive, even in our micro-managed environment.