The Dirty Truth About Combined Storm Overflows And Their Impact On Urban Rivers

The Dirty Truth About Combined Storm Overflows And Their Impact On Urban Rivers

Wales is home to some of the most badly polluted rivers in the UK, new data from the  Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales reveals. Water companies regularly dump sewage into waterways via sewage pipes called storm overflows – even during normal weather conditions. In 2021, waterways in England and Wales had sewage continually dumped into them for an astonishing 3.4 million hours in total, resulting in calls for water company bosses to face jail time over repeated spills.  

The most polluted rivers in Wales 

The UK’s most polluted river? River Severn – the UK’s longest river bordering England and Wales. Shockingly, Severn Trent Water dumped 28,741 hours worth of sewage into the Severn on 2,656 occasions. Wales’ River Teifi is the ninth most polluted river in the UK, River Usk the 12th, River Wye the 14th, River Tawe the 17th, Menai Strait 18th, and River Taf 20th. Water company Dwr Cymru is responsible for all this pollution. 

Monitoring 99% of storm overflows 

“Welsh Water has monitors on 99% of our storm overflows, more than any other water company, and given Wales also receives more rainfall than England this results in these storm overflows operating more often. It is therefore unsurprising that we currently record larger numbers of spills than others”, said a Dwr Cymru spokesman. “Nonetheless we are committed to protecting the environment and investing over £900m to protect the environment between 2020 and 2025. With 44% of Welsh rivers achieving good ecological status, compared to 16% in England, we are playing our part by investing to prevent any water body in Wales from failing good ecological status by 2030 as a result of our wastewater treatment works”.

“We are also continuing to assess the environmental impact of storm overflows, undertaking more research than other water companies, so that we can, in conjunction with our environmental regulators, understand the range of factors impacting river water quality and this includes agreeing on a programme of work to improve any storm overflows that may be having an impact”, the Dwr Cymru spokesman added.

Sewage pollution 

Storm overflows are designed to act as relief valves that prevent sewage from flowing back into homes and businesses after extreme weather. However, water companies are dumping sewage illegally without permits during normal weather conditions. Government plans yet to be unveiled may see water companies facing massive multi-million-pound fines. Currently, there’s a £250,000 cap on penalties for companies that dump sewage into waterways. It’s also not uncommon for running tap water to take on an unpleasant smell like sewage or rotten eggs. Rest assured, however, this smell doesn’t indicate the presence of sewage in the water. Rather, the drain itself has become contaminated with sulfur bacteria. The water may smell bad, but it’s safe to drink. The smell can also be removed by chlorinating and flushing the drains.  

Wales Better River Quality Taskforce assembled 

“Natural Resources Wales (NRW) is concerned about the impact of storm discharges on our water quality,” said an NRW spokesperson. “We are taking action to address the issue via the Wales Better River Quality Taskforce. The task force brings together the Welsh Government, NRW, Ofwat, Dŵr Cymru, and Hafren Dyfrdwy with independent advice from Afonydd Cymru and the Consumer Council for Water. Collaboratively the task force has published a series of action plans to gather greater evidence on the impact of storm overflows on our rivers and the sea to reduce the impacts they cause, to improve regulation, and to educate the public on sewer misuse”.

“Water companies have a responsibility to the environment, as well as their customers, and they must take this issue seriously” the spokesperson continued. “We will continue to challenge the water companies to make sure storm overflows are properly controlled. We will investigate any cases of non-compliance and where appropriate take the required enforcement action.”

Ali Rennoll

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Team @ AberdareOnline

Team @ AberdareOnline

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