Water companies not doing enough to reduce serious pollution

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 12 July 2018

Water companies are not doing enough to reduce serious pollution incidents which affect communities and blight rivers and beaches, the Environment Agency has said in a new report.

Beach outflow pipes
© Sacha Fernandez

With the vast majority of England’s water bodies failing to meet good ecological status we must see more innovation to reduce pollution

Rachel Wyatt,
MCS Water Quality Programme Manager

Despite a reduction in recent years, compared to historic numbers, improvement has stalled and in 2017 it increased to 11 incidents, from nine in 2016. The total number of water quality pollution incidents (serious and more minor ones) in 2017 was 1,827, only a slight reduction on 1,902 in 2016.

They are happening at a rate of around one a week, the water and sewage companies’ environmental performance report said.

Of the most serious incidents, 10 were associated with letting partially treated effluent into the environment.

The report rates how well the big nine water and sewage companies operating mainly or wholly in England have performed in the past year on pollution, managing sewage and complying with permits. The sector must also show “clear focus” on making water supplies resilient to climate change in the face of wetter winters which raise the risk of flooding and drier summers which make drought more likely.

For the third year running, United Utilities and Wessex Water were the top performing water companies, and this year Severn Trent Water joined them. But the report revealed an urgent need for improvements by the lowest rated companies South West Water, the worst performer on pollution incidents, and Northumbrian Water, which came bottom on complying with permits.

“It’s good to see that many water companies are assessed as delivering ‘Good’ or ‘Leading’ performances, but disappointing that we are not seeing a continued reduction in pollution incidents,” says Rachel Wyatt, MCS Water Quality Programme Manager. “With many of England’s water bodies failing to meet good ecological status we must see more innovation to reduce pollution. We would urge companies to include strong commitments to reduce all incidents of pollution in their business plans for 2020 to 2025, due to be published this autumn.”

Together with 17 other organisations, called the ‘The Blueprint for Water’, MCS has set out four priorities it wants to see in the plans:

The Environment Agency said it would be looking for how water companies were planning for increased drought and flood risk in their 2020 to 2025 business plans which are due in the autumn. Investing in resilience to the impacts of climate change such as extreme weather presented a “huge economic opportunity” for water companies, the agency said.

Toby Willison, executive director of operations for the Environment Agency, said: “The leading companies in this report show that reducing their environmental impact can be done, so we look to companies to share good practice and improve quickly. “But one serious pollution incident is one too many. We will always work closely with companies who want to do the right thing but we will take action against those who don’t.”

He added: “The environment will benefit from a further £5 billion of investment from the water sector by 2025. “We expect to see a clear and continued focus on environmental performance in the next round of water company business plans to be submitted in the autumn.”

MCS advises bathers to always check the Good Beach Guide for the most up to date information on water quality around the UK especially after long dry spells followed by heavy rainfall.

Actions you can take

  1. Explore 'Near You' incorporating the 'Good Beach Guide'
  2. Download the Great British Beach Clean Report 2019