Defra demands 80% CSO cut by 2050

George Eustice has proposed targets to progressively reduce total spills from combined sewer overflows by 80% by 2050 beginning with those that affect protected sites.

The secretary of state for the environment set out time-bound expectations for wastewater companies to eliminate the impacts of 3,000 storm overflows by 2035 as part of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.

Eustice said: “Today, we are setting specific targets to ensure that those storm overflows are used only in exceptional circumstances – delivering on our Environment Act and building on wider work on water quality.”

There are c15,000 storm overflows in England water companies are permitted to release from at times of heavy rainfall to prevent the sewer system becoming overwhelmed. The water sector laid out £3.1 billion of investment during the current asset management period to 2025 to improve sewer networks and minimise harm to the water environment. A further £144 million investment was triggered by the Storm Overflows Taskforce work.

Outcries of public sentiment have grown in recent years in response to Environment Agency reports of stagnating improvements to river water quality and more people wanting to use rivers for recreation and sports.

The Environment Act, which passed into law in November, stipulated that “progressive reductions” should be made by the sector to minimise harm from overflows and today’s announcement takes that one step further.

The new plan distinguishes between reducing the total number of discharges and cutting down the impacts of harm at protected sites by number of CSO points. It proposes 70% fewer discharges into bathing waters during swimming season by 2035 as well as 75% reduction of environmental impact from 3,000 CSOs.

By 2040 it targets eliminating approximately 160,000 discharges, which will be 40% of the total; and by 2050 further cutting this to eliminate 320,000 discharges –  80% of the total.

Achieving such reductions will take combined efforts from the sector, its regulators and government as well as billpayer support. Separating sewage and rainwater systems to eliminate the use of overflows has been estimated to cost between £350 billion and £600 billion and require substantial disruptions to access and replace networks under towns and cities.

Water UK said: “If implemented, these historic proposals represent the single biggest investment in the water environment since the 1990s. This level of transformation will require significant new investment over the next decade, building on the £3.1bn of spending between now and 2025.

“Crucially, meeting the targets will also rely on government taking action: first, to reduce the many years of regulatory approvals needed to improve some overflows; second, to close loopholes like housing developers’ right to overload sewers; and finally, action on flushed wet wipes that cause spill-triggering fatbergs.”

Reducing discharges at inland waters with other options such as more storage tanks for times of heavy rainfall would cost between £160 billion and £240 billion, which would impact water bills.

The Environment Act requires water companies to monitor their CSOs and publish data on discharges. It included several measures Philip Dunne MP and chair of the Environmental Audit Committee proposed in his private members bill last year.

Dunne said of the proposed targets: “With greater accountability and responsibility on water companies to clean up their act, there may now be light at the end of our Victorian pipe system. We are under no illusions that the scale of the challenge is significant, but when executives are paid handsomely and utility bills rising, consumers expect and demand more. There is simply no excuse for the substandard infrastructure and damaging practices which have such a negative impact on our rivers, especially during a climate and nature crisis.”

A consultation on the proposed measures will run to 12 May and can be found here.

Dunne added: “Headline after headline about atrocious sewage discharges have made us all angry. I encourage all who care about the health of our rivers to respond constructively to the government’s consultation so that lasting and effective changes in policy and practice can be made.”