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Fact check: Why do water companies dump wastewater into rivers and seas and how does water quality in the UK compare to other countries?

The water quality of Britain’s rivers, seas and lakes has been in the spotlight in recent years, with campaign groups calling on the government, regulators and water companies to “take action” on contaminated wastewater.

So why are water utilities allowed to spill wastewater and how does our water quality compare to other countries?

FactCheck takes a look.

Why do water utilities spill wastewater into rivers and oceans?

To prevent overloading the system, water utilities are sometimes allowed to release wastewater into open water after heavy rains. To do this, they use relief valves, so-called “storm overflows,” to divert additional rainwater and wastewater into rivers or seas.

But activists have long said these spills happen too often.

According to the latest data According to the Environment Agency, there were just over 300,000 “monitored leaks” in England in 2022.

Although this figure is still high, it was actually down 19 percent compared to 2021 and 25 percent compared to 2020.

But it’s still nearly 24 times higher than 2016 and more than nine times higher than 2017.

Ali Morse, water policy manager at The Wildlife Trusts, told FactCheck: “The public rightly wants urgent action on the pollution that continues to put the UK’s rivers at great risk.”

However, she also pointed out other problems in the water system. The impact of wastewater spills is “dwarfed by the damage caused by treated wastewater and agricultural pollution,” she said.

This is done by Dr. Confirmed by Tanja Radu from Loughborough University’s Water Engineering and Development Centre, who said: “Overall water quality is heavily influenced by the release of raw sewage, as well as the contribution of agriculture, urban runoff and climate change.”

A Defra spokesperson told FactCheck that the department’s agriculture programs “provide significant funding to reduce agricultural runoff” and that the government’s water plan “tackles every source of pollution and ensures swift enforcement action is taken against those who violate the.” Breaking the rules.”

Experts often point to the state of our sewers and growing population as reasons for sewage spills.

Dr. Radu noted that “aging infrastructure and increased pressure on wastewater treatment plants due to population growth are often blamed for the frequent releases of raw sewage.”

She said: “The lack of investment in infrastructure means that water suppliers often rely on the combined sewer overflow network (CSO), although this can only be used during incidents such as extreme rainfall.”

How does our water quality compare to other countries?

The UK is one of ten European countries to top the Environmental Performance Index (EPI) ranking for the cleanest drinking water in the world.

However, only 16 percent of England’s surface waters – such as rivers, seas and lakes – currently reach there Good ecological status (GES) or higher. In Scotland it is 48 percent. In Wales it is 44 percent and in Northern Ireland 31 percent.

Ecological status is determined using various water, habitat and biological quality tests, such as toxic chemical pollution. A “good” condition is defined as “a slight change from the natural condition as a result of human influence”.

The water information system for Europe says that across the continent, around 40 percent of surface waters are in good or high ecological status, particularly in the northern Scandinavian region and Scotland, as well as in Estonia, Romania, Slovakia and the Mediterranean.

Of the bathing waters whose ecological status is measured differently, 86 percent of the bathing waters were of excellent quality in 2022 European Environment Agency (EEA). Cyprus, Austria, Greece and Croatia performed best, where 95 percent were rated “very good”.

Separate Data published by the British government in 2023 shows that of 423 bathing waters in England66 percent were rated as excellent (meaning the highest and cleanest water quality), although these figures are not directly comparable to the EEA figures.

It is worth noting that the frequency of recording some water qualities has also changed since Brexit.

Dr. Radu said: “During our stay in the European Union [England] Water bodies were monitored annually in accordance with the Water Framework Directive.”

But since leaving the EU, “we have moved to reporting every three years – the next full assessment is expected in 2025”.

(Image credit: Maureen McLean/Shutterstock)

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