The discharging of sewage into the UK’s rivers and seas is a subject that has been in the media headlines for a few years, yet each year the situation just seems to get worse. Wastewater treatment plants are allowed to release raw sewage during periods of intense rainfall to avoid the sewerage system being overwhelmed and causing floods.
This was supposed to be a last resort that would only occur on a few days each year. However, data collected by the Environment Agency (EA) shows that most water companies in England and Wales are releasing untreated wastewater for thousands of hours each year, including on days when there was no rainfall.
This practice is illegal because the sewage is not diluted by rainwater, and can harm wildlife and make the waterways dangerous for people to swim in. There have been reports throughout the summer of open water swimmers and surfers falling ill with stomach bugs, and picking up skin, ear and eye infections.
The government has introduced new penalties for water companies who breached regulations, and promised that the revenue from fines will be reinvested into new solutions to prevent water pollution.
There has been some progress already by water companies who are looking at ways to reduce storm overflows. For example, Southern Water has recently reported on improvements that have taken place in Whitstable. These include a £20 million upgrade of the Swalecliffe Wastewater Treatment Works.
Further measures include improving the on site stormwater storage capacity, which has already reduced storm overflows into the sea by 30%. They are also introducing more rain gardens in the local area to help absorb excess rainwater, and have provided key groups with water quality testing kits.
Southern Water Pathfinder Delivery Lead for Kent, Jon Yates, said: “Tackling storm overflows is our top priority and I can assure everyone in Whitstable that we’re fully focused on using every tool at our disposal to ensure that storm overflows are significantly reduced.”
He added: “We’re doing this through working with partners and creating nature-based and engineering solutions, but this work will take time and our focus is to find what works and then scale it up across our region so we can see positive results.”
Furthermore, Southern Water is looking into ways that technology can be used to help manage wastewater overflows. This includes using AI intelligence and rainfall data to predict and plan ahead for extreme weather conditions. This will help staff to make more effective use of temporary storage capacity within the sewerage network.
The company is also investigating ways to boost sustainable urban drainage with tree planting schemes and designated areas of permeable land that will absorb rainwater and reduce runoff.
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