Worryingly, despite the improvement in levels of sewage treatment, water companies continue to cause sewage pollution. In 2005 water companies topped the league table of worst polluters in England and Wales, as compiled by the Environment Agency. They have been brandished ‘repeat offenders’ and with fines for pollution incidents incredibly low (see Environmental Courts campaign) it is often more cost effective for water companies to pay the fine rather than strive to improve their performance by remedying the situation.
In addition, it’s not just the number of pollution incidents that are causing concern for SAS. We are particularly concerned that the water industry is using out of date information to predict extreme rainfall.
Current water industry practice is to estimate rainfall intensities using data produced in the late 1960s despite more up to date data from the early 1990s, which shows intense rainfall is more frequent. By not accounting for a changing climate, hydrological experts believe sewerage systems being built NOW may fail in preventing sewer pollution and flooding in the near future.
To maintain current performance in terms of the volume of Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO) discharges, it might be needed to increase storage capacity up to ten fold. Such action would require major investment, but could be offset if water companies were able to make more of integrated decision making with other sectors such as farming, spatial planners and developers. For example, with planning and development, the general trend is to concrete over green spaces for development and this prevents water soaking away naturally. It is all diverted into the drainage systems and then combined with sewage puts too greater pressure on the sewage treatment works to store and treat sewage and wastewater, often leading to pollution incidents.
SAS are calling on the Government to ensure up to date climate change data is used in designing and building new sewerage schemes to ensure sewage works have enough capacity to deal with predicted increases in rainfall. Without such action we can expect more sewer pollution incidents and that’s bad news for protecting the health of recreational water users.
SAS also believes a more sustainable water industry is radically required. One that makes more use of reusing treated effluent to help offset water shortages. The great beauty of fully treating sewage by a process such as UV disinfection not only guarantees clean and safe recreational water, but also allows it to be recycled and not wasted, through a variety of non-potable and potable applications. In a time when we are increasingly seeing droughts causing water shortages surely we should be making water reuse more of a priority, rather than wasting it at sea every day.
With it not always easy being able to build new storage capacity at sewage treatment works primarily because of land issues, a greater emphasis should be placed on the development of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS). Just planting a few more trees can take the pressure off a sewage treatment works in reducing the flows of sewage and wastewater it needs to treat.
SAS also believes there is a pressing need to have look on the horizon it is vital the water industry moves away from the 5-year periods where they plan their investment, including environmental improvements.
Establishing longer planning horizons for investment that keep a close eye on a changing climate, will help in promoting more SUDS, more sustainable technologies for water treatment, more integrated decision making and more source control solutions rather than an over reliance on end of pipe solutions.