UK announces £1.6bn water pollution plan

The River Trust sewage pollution

The UK has pledged to try and clean up its act, announcing a new £1.6 billion plan to reduce the unacceptable levels of pollution in its waterways.

The news marks a victory for campaigners pushing to clean up rivers. According to data from The Environment Agency, over the course of 2020 and 2021, sewage was dumped into the ocean and rivers around the UK more than 770,000 times. In January, MIN reported on a British woman who once swam regularly in the ocean between Southsea and Eastney. She believes she contracted Hepatitis A from dirty water at the seafront.

After years of leaks and sewage overflows, seven water companies have proposed a range of 10 schemes that aim to improve overflows and reduce the frequency of sewage spills by around 10,000 discharges per year.

In an announcement on Monday (3 April 2023), the government and the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) confirmed the investment would be “directed into vital infrastructure to improve the water quality of our rivers, lakes and coastal waters and secure future water supplies”.

This news follows a request from Defra to English water companies to accelerate investments between now and 2025 to tackle storm overflow discharges, reduce nutrient pollution from treatment works and address water resilience challenges.

This announcement comes ahead of the government’s Integrated Plan for Water, which will be published today (4 April 2023).

As part of the new package of investment, companies will commit £1.1 billion to help eliminate harm caused by storm overflows. A further £400 million will be spent on water resilience schemes and £160 million to help reduce nutrient pollution, according to the government.

St Agnes pollution
Pollution at St Agnes

It includes major new projects such as:

  • United Utilities reducing around 8,400 spills per year, including reducing discharges into Lake Windermere (£800 million).
  • Yorkshire Water improving wastewater treatment infrastructure in Ilkley to improve the bathing water quality of the River Wharfe (£67 million).
  • South West Water upgrading assets and storage to reduce discharges in Falmouth and Sidmouth (£70 million).
  • Anglian Water accelerating its regional storm overflow reduction plan in the East of England (£27 million).
  • Essex and Suffolk Water increasing water resilience in their area to better meet the needs of local customers including businesses (£18 million).
  • Severn Trent rolling out smart meters and modifying its Draycote Water reservoir in Warwickshire to increase water capacity (£70 million).

Schemes will also focus on new infrastructure to reduce nutrient pollution. Improvements at 14 wastewater treatment works, with an investment of £160 million, will significantly reduce phosphorus pollution in protected site catchments. This includes proposals from Anglian Water to both reduce pollution and support sustainable housing development.

All work will start in the next two years, from 2023 to 2025.

“Substantial investment is needed to address the challenges to our water system of storm overflows, river and bathing water quality and drought resilience,” says Ofwat chief executive David Black.

“We are pleased that we’ve been able to work with companies and identify significant investments which companies can start well before the next price control period. This will bring substantial benefits for customers and the environment and bring them faster. We want to see companies making more rapid progress in delivering improvements, and will hold them to account if they fall short.”

Water minister Rebecca Pow adds: “These new schemes will help accelerate the delivery of the urgent improvements we need to protect our environment. It includes £1.1 billion of new investment to stop sewage discharges at sites across the country and will deliver a reduction of 10,000 discharges per year in places like Lake Windermere, the River Wharfe, Falmouth and Sidmouth.

“The investment set out here will also provide an important boost for regional jobs, businesses and local communities.”

Ofwat will consult on these draft decisions and the consultation will close at midday on Monday 24 April 2023.

“This is what our years of citizen science, water testing, bathing status and holding agencies to account has got us,” Becky Malby of the Ilkley Clean River Group tells the Guardian. “We are really pleased.”

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This article was written and/or edited by the UK-based MIN team.

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