The problem with real-time water company sewage maps

Several English water companies have released live sewage maps. But is this really as much of a breakthrough for water users as we might think?

Let’s rewind to 1989 and uncover why it’s taken so long to reach this crucial point, and the pivotal role SAS has played in raising awareness about sewage pollution.

Back in 1989, when water companies were privatised, the public was largely unaware of the sewage pollution from combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Raw sewage was discharged into waterways from Cornwall to Liverpool without much public knowledge.

Fast forward to 1990, SAS was born out of sheer frustration with swimming in sh**, and we started campaigning against sewage pollution.

By 2010, Surfers Against Sewage launched the ‘sewage alert service’ (now known as the Safer Seas and Rivers Service), pioneering the first-of-its-kind service to inform surfers in Cornwall about sewage alerts before entering the water.

In 2019, English water companies began alerting Surfers Against Sewage about sewage impacts on beaches. However, each company used its own data modelling, leaving SAS in the dark about discharge lengths and origins.

In 2022, demands for data transparency resulted in a law mandating all water companies to release real-time sewage discharge information from all their CSOs.

But in the same year, water companies launched their own sewage alert services, creating confusion with differing standards.

Surfers Against Sewage stood against water companies’ data modelling, demanding a national standard benefiting all water users.

Finally, in 2023, after 35 years since privatisation and millions of discharges into waterways, water companies began collaborating on a national sewage alert standard, spurred by public pressure and outrage over the impact on water users, marine life, and the environment.

That bring us to 2024. Water companies have started releasing real-time sewage discharge data for all their CSOs. However, without a standardised definition of a sewage alert, this data offers no assurance of safe swimming, as the full impact remains unknown beyond bathing waters.

How have Surfers Against Sewage been generating sewage alerts?

Up until this point, water companies have been sending us email notifications whenever they deem that a location is impacted. We then process these emails automatically to issue alerts.

But now, with water companies upgrading their systems, they’re providing real-time maps for each individual CSO whenever there’s a spill. It’s a step forward for data transparency. However, several water companies haven’t given Surfers Against Sewage access to this data, despite our request for access. We insist this changes.

Access to this data will lead to more alerts as we’ll have more information available. But each alert will be more detailed, including which CSO discharged and when. Plus, we’re working on an update to create profiles for each CSO, alongside beach profiles. This means you’ll have access to comprehensive historical data for all CSOs near your location.

Calling for Change, more clarity for water users

To ensure we provide accurate sewage alerts without over-alerting, we recognise the need for a standardised and nationally adopted model and definition for sewage alerts and we are part of the discussion on a new UK Water Industry Research (UKWIR) project to set these standards. Until we have access to the CSO data we will have to continue using water companies’ email alerts, based on their own model, which will differ water company to water company.

At Surfers Against Sewage, we find relying on models created by individual water companies without verification or approval from regulators problematic. Therefore, until a national standard is established, we’ve chosen to provide water users with all available information about spills, even if it leads to over-alerting. We need them to provide us with the data instead of hosting it on their own websites and controlling the narrative. This approach empowers you to assess the safety of swimming based on a comprehensive understanding of discharges in your area and do this from an unbiased source.

We’re actively collaborating on a project to establish a national standard and definition for sewage alerts. Once this standard is determined, it will bring clarity to the sector, reducing confusion about which source provides the most accurate information and which service to rely on.

If you’d like to contribute to these discussions to find out more, please reach out to us via email on [email protected]