The number of discharge notifications issued for the use of combined sewer overflows rose 87.6% over the past year to 5,517, according to the Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) 2021 report.

SAS analysed data from the Safer Seas and River Service (SSRS) between October 2020 and September 2021 which showed 3,328 discharge notifications were issued during the bathing season.

The annual water quality report revealed the extent of pollution in the UK’s rivers and seas from sewage discharges by wastewater companies including an increasing number used outside of extreme weather events.

SAS said the numbers “are likely a conservative estimate” of pollution levels because data was not consistently provided throughout the year, with some companies focusing on bathing season (May to September) only.

Southern Water was found to have the most discharges with 1,949 notifications issued during the year. It was one of five companies that provided year-round data to SAS, not just during the bathing season.

The report included testing undertaken by citizen scientists trained to sample bathing water at beach and river locations to understand how beaches were being impacted by water quality. Elevated E.coli levels were found at 75% of river sites that returned overall poor quality water results over through the year.

“Left to its own devices, the water industry will continue to put the profits of its shareholders over the health of people and the environment, paying out huge dividends whilst destroying the rivers and coastlines we love and rely upon,” the report said.

The group has lobbied to end the use of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) by 2030 and advocates for nature based solutions to tackle the problems associated with overflows. Its report highlighted benefit from sustainable urban drainage, tree planting and the creation of wetlands to capture and slow excess water to reduce the amount entering sewer networks.

“Government must stop weakening legislation that protects us and the environment, stop hindering investment that encourages water companies to ‘sweat their assets’, and stop wilfully ignoring some of the worst pollution instances. Instead, we need to properly resource, regulate and enforce against water pollution, putting legal requirements and targets in place that will result in improved water quality for all,” the report concluded.

In response, Water UK said the sector recognised the need for urgent action to protect and enhance waterways. Its recent Rivers report sets out steps to make the changes being called for including a Rivers Act.

A spokesperson said: “We know we need to go further and water companies want to invest more to improve infrastructure and stop harm from storm overflows and outfalls.

“With our coastal bathing waters we have a good base to build on with more than 70% rated as ‘excellent’, and over 90% as either ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. This improvement has come about thanks to collaborative working between industry, government, regulators and other stakeholders over several years.

“Water companies don’t have all the answers and, to get the healthy, thriving rivers and seas that everyone wants, we’ll need to tap into this spirit of collaboration once again.”

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