Rivers Trust warns against quick fixes for tackling CSO pollution

The Rivers Trust has called for “sensible solutions, not knee jerk reaction fixes” to improve river health after publishing data showing a rise in the number of discharges from combined sewer overflows.

Director of advocacy for the organisation, Tessa Wardley, was speaking to Utility Week after the environmental NGO published its map of discharge data for England and Wales, which showed 579,581 spills last year, up from 385,000 in 2022.

Following the 2023 deadline for water and sewerage companies to monitor CSOs, the sewage map offers a complete picture for the first time, and subsequently shows more spills. The data included more than 464,000 spills in England, where monitors are now in place for 100% of storm overflows with a monitoring requirement.

Despite the bleak picture of rising discharges, Wardley was optimistic that improvements were being made.

“Utilities companies get a lot of bad press, but people on the ground and at senior levels generally want to improve rivers,” she said. “The pressure being put on by increased public activism has raised the profile, but it comes with a negative side.”

Wardley said there is a need for an “element of education” alongside the heightened public awareness of the problem.

“We want to see sensible solutions, not just knee jerk reaction fixes,” she added. These, Wardley suggested, were due to government and regulators being fearful of doing the wrong thing.

It has resulted in a reluctance to embrace less familiar approaches, such as reed beds for tertiary treatments from smaller wastewater treatment plants. This means traditional end-of-pipe engineering solutions will continue to be used.

Wardley explained these were not always the most suitable and did not offer multiple benefits that blue-green infrastructure could.

“Nature-based solutions are largely what’s happening at the sewage works but for proper solutions, we need to look up the catchment and look at what’s happening catchment-wide, not just the water company issues,” Wardley said.

“The current assessment is that more than half the rivers are failing because of agricultural pollution. So we can’t tackle one thing in isolation, you really have to look at it all.”

The Rivers Trust is leading a project, funded through the Ofwat Innovation Fund, with United Utilities, Mott Macdonald and Jacobs to ensure more nature-based solutions can be used from 2030 onwards.

Wardley explained the catchment work is intended to accelerate the roll-out of blue-green options by addressing barriers to uptake. These range from financial, cultural and issues of land ownership, as well as policy and regulation blockers.