Faced with increasing public anger over repeated spilling of raw sewage into seas and rivers, water companies in England have issued an apology and pledged to invest £10 billion in modernising sewers to reduce spills of overflowing sewage into England’s waterways.

The statement was made by Water UK, the industry body which represents England's nine water and sewage companies.

“The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: we are sorry,” says Ruth Kelly, the chair of Water UK. “More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.

“We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.”

However, environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey called it a "half apology", telling the BBC Radio Four Today programme: “What I am actually hearing is no apology for the fact we have paid them for a service we haven't got, they are now suggesting we pay them a second time for a service we haven't had. We should have an apology for the suggestion they are going to put bills up by £10 billion for their incompetence and their greed, this is nothing to celebrate.”

According to Environment Agency figures, there were a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day. Water UK says their plans will cut the number of overflow incidents by up to 140,000 each year by 2030.

The investment aims to build new facilities to hold surges in rainwater; increase capacity for sewage treatment works; introduce measures to reduce rainfall entering sewers by replacing concrete with grass and ponds; fix misconnected pipes from properties and treat overflow spills so they have much less impact on the river, including through reed beds, wetlands and other nature-friendly projects.

But this investment could mean higher bills for customers. Reportedly shareholders in water companies will initially fund the investments but the costs will be recouped from customers through unspecified increases in their bills determined by regulators.

Professor Alex Ford from the University of Portsmouth has studied the effects of pollutants on wildlife and humans: “It’s good to see an acknowledgment from body representing the water industry that things need to improve. Trust has been eroded in their ability to deal with this issue. Chemical pollutants present in sewage discharges will be evident in our marine wildlife for decades to come.”

Following heavy rainfall, companies are sometimes allowed to spill sewage to prevent the system from becoming overloaded and backing up into people's homes. The criticism is that these spills are happening too often.

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In April 2023 the government announced that its target to reduce storm overflows will be enshrined in law through the Environment Act 2021.

“I have been unequivocal on this issue. Water companies need to clean up their act – and they need to cover the costs,” says environment secretary Thérèse Coffey. “But the hard truth is that however much we all want to see this fixed immediately, the scale and complexity means there is no way that we can stop pollution overnight.”

Main image: Wastewater from large sewage treatement plant flowing directly into a river. © Robert Brook/Getty


Jo PriceDeputy editor, BBC Wildlife Magazine