Levels, leaks, litigation, motions and pressure: the problem of foul water across our area – March 2022

sewage leaks out of manhole

Few relationships that humans have are more complicated than our one with water. It’s absolutely vital and yet too much of it, or any of it in the wrong place, is a disaster. For millennia we have used dams, pipes, ditches, culverts, canals, pumps, tanks, reservoirs and a host of other means to try to control. It seems to have only two interests, trying to erode or dissolve anything it comes into contact with and finding the quickest route downhill. There’s about 330 million cubic miles of the stuff on the planet. It accounts for about two-thirds of our bodies. It’s dead useful but sometime we wish that it was somewhere else.

As we all know, climate change is likely to make this problem worse with extreme weather events including droughts and floods becoming more common. In this part of the country there’s another issue to contend with for we sit on a high lump of chalk. This cleverly combines the functions of an underground reservoir, a filtration system and a pumping network. All this was fine until we started running sewer pipes through this aquifer; and it was still fine until these started to crack. When the groundwater level, and thus the pressure, is high, water rushes in through the cracks so overloading the system. We all know what happens next.

There are various ways this can be tackled. The first, obviously, is to keep and eye on the water levels. The second is to ensure that the pipes are in good order (by Thames Water (TA) in this part of the country). The third is to monitor and overflows and discharges into clean waterways and, if necessary, instigate legal or other action against the perpetrators (by the Environment Agency, EA hereafter).

(The title mentions the Lambourn Valley as that’s an area that’s particularly badly affected: however this is also a problem in many other places, including the area around Aldbourne and Ramsbury.)

Measuring the levels

The good news, for the sewerage system at least, is that the level seem to be below normal and well below any danger levels and likely to remain so. None of the local councillors I spoke to were aware of any problems. Martyn Wright of the East Garston Flood Forum said that the two gauge readings he kept an eye on were at Upper Lambourn and Great Shefford. Neither seem concerning. If you flick to the ‘year” option you’ll see that both are some way below last year’s figure. For anyone living near the River Lambourn (as we both do), visual evidence supports this. The river is lower than usual and in these upper reaches will probably be gone by July. Good news for the sewers though perhaps not for the ducks.

Fixing the pipes

Thames Water did repairs in the valley in 2021, including here in East Garston in May (see this article and video). It was hoped that this would improve the problem but the current low water levels mean that this is unlikely to be given a stern test this year.

I contacted TW on 4 March to ask various questions including what further repairs were planned for this year.

“The current project in Malt Shovel Lane is the last outstanding piece of work from all the areas we identified groundwater entering our network over the past 18-24 months,” a spokesperson said. “After this work is completed, we will continue to monitor the situation using the methods mentioned such as monitoring boreholes, river levels and pumping station data. If anything changes in the network, for example if we see increased flows through the network and our pumping stations, we will continue investigations to locate new areas of potential infiltration and where to direct our repairs.”

Policing the leaks

Here we enter a much more difficult area. There has recently been a lot of pressure on water companies to get these pipes fixed and, as importantly, to stop the practice of discharging sewage into waterways. The practice is certainly widespread. This BBC article from March 2021 says that in 2020 there were 400,000 such discharges with the pipes running in various part of the country for three million hours (imagine one pipe flowing continuously for about 350 years).

This is an appalling statistic. However, discharging into waterways (even SSSI ones like the Lambourn) suddenly becomes a very attractive option if the alternative is to have the sewage coming up in people’s houses. This is a justification that water companies have used for some years: and, if you were confronted with this choice, it would be a no-brainer – into the river with it. See this separate post on this subject.

The rules have, however recently been changed. Until late last year, the regulator Ofwat’s apparent priority was to keep water charges low for consumers and appeared to limit the investment water companies could make in actions that would protect and improve the environment. Recently we have seen a change in approach from OFWAT, reminding water companies of their duty to the environment and investigating their treatment of sewage. That shift in policy emphasis has resulted in the issue of enforcement cases against five companies (including TW). I asked TW what it thought about this.

“We have long held the view that it is unacceptable for untreated sewage to enter rivers, even when legally permitted and we take this matter very seriously, : I was told. “We set out our position at the Environmental Audit Committee and are committed to being transparent, and have been developing an action plan, prior to Ofwat’s review, to radically improve our position in order to protect and improve the environment. We will fully cooperate with Ofwat on this next stage of the investigation.

“We have allocated an unprecedented amount of investment directed towards safeguarding our rivers and streams, including spending £1.25 billion on maintaining and improving our operational sites, including contributing to the health of 745 Km of rivers of rivers across London and the Thames Valley. Our aim will always be to try and do the right thing for rivers and for the communities who love and value them. We are already taking action to reduce discharges of untreated sewage and welcome measures that will enable us to deliver our long-term aspirations faster to the benefit of both the communities we serve and the environment we seek to protect.”

On 15 March, the company was more specific still saying that it “commits to reducing the total duration of sewage discharges in its region by 50% by 2030, rising to 80% in sensitive catchments.”

Ofwat and the Environment Agency

Wikipedia describes Ofwat’s role as being “the body responsible for economic regulation of the privatised water and sewerage industry in England and Wales. Ofwat’s main statutory duties include protecting the interests of consumers, securing the long-term resilience of water supply and wastewater systems, and ensuring that companies carry out their functions and are able to finance them.” The Environment Agency (EA) describes itself as slows: “We protect and improve the environment. We help people and wildlife adapt to climate change and reduce its impacts, including flooding, drought, sea level rise and coastal erosion. We improve the quality of our water, land and air by tackling pollution. We work with businesses to help them comply with environmental regulations. A healthy and diverse environment enhances people’s lives and contributes to economic growth.” It’s clear from these that the two organisations need to work closely and effectively if any meaningful progress is to be made.

I spoke to a representative of the EA on 4 March who confirmed that it had launched 50 prosecutions against water and sewerage companies since 2015 securing fines of over £137m. £10.3m of the fines in 2021 came from three convictions against TW for sewage discharges in Oxford, Henley and London. “Where there is evidence of non-compliance,” the statement continued, “we will not hesitate to pursue the water companies concerned and take appropriate action. We will always take forward prosecutions in the most serious cases but often we take other action too – including enforcement undertakings, which allow polluters to positively address and restore the harm caused to the environment and prevent repeat incidents by improving the practices of the offending business to help ensure future compliance with environmental requirements.”

All these are fine words and impressive sums. There’s one problem, however. They don’t seem to be doing the business.

What’s next?

“Every measure of the health of our rivers shows that in general the situation continues to get worse,” Charlotte Hitchmough the influential local charity Action for the River Kennet (ARK)  so nothing that’s been tried so far has really worked. We need to stop tinkering at the edges and make some step changes.”

The government’s latest response is the Environment Act 2021. This is, as Charlotte Hitchmough from ARK told Penny Post this week, “a step in the right direction but only a small one.” There was an option to beef it up with the Duke of Wellington’s amendment (which was defeated) but this was not taken because of, as the Rivers Trust said in this article in October 2021, “scaremongering and the red herrings of costing.” A number of MPs, including Laura Farris, were convinced by this. The cost of completely eliminating the problem would, the article admits, cost about £150bn: even more than HS2. However, the author argues, “the Duke of Wellington’s amendment to the Environment Bill, places a duty on water companies to ensure raw sewage is not discharged into our rivers and coasts and requires this to be done reasonably and progressively. It is not demanding an irrational fix, digging up every sewer in the country and passing costs on to consumers.”

“One in five of our combined storm overflows (that discharge a mixture of untreated household sewage and rainwater) are overflowing more than 60 times a year“, the article continues. “These are the chronic poor performers that are operating outside of the ‘exceptional circumstances’ they were designed for. These should be prioritised in a reasonable response.”

There are, in other words, some quick-ish fixes water companies can do to the conventional “grey” infrastructure. There’s also a new (actually, very old) infrastructure that can be utilised – nature itself, the so-called blue-green solutions which use and enhance the natural features of the landscape to absorb high water levels and so mitigate its effects. Locally, Action for the River Kennet has been much involved in these which include schemes such as rain gardens and the Sparking Streams project in Hungerford.

Two things have recently become very clear. The first is that public opinion (which until recently was largely oblivious to the problem) will no longer tolerate the level of discharges caused by the inadequacies of our system. The second is that, as mentioned above, the cost of fixing the problem is of HS2 proportions. Leaving aside the question of whether having private companies with shareholders was the best way of organising this, what do we do about it?

The blue-green solution – long advocated by riparian organisations and more recently embraced by water companies – seems to present a useful way by which the problem can be managed while major infrastructure improvements are also carried out. On 15 March, TW said that it will commit “£5 million over five years, in partnership with the Rivers Trust, for partnership projects and capacity building.” A spokesperson for the Rivers Trust said that the organisation “welcomes the urgent prioritisation that water companies are placing on addressing river pollution. It’s also important that Thames Water have recognised the need to address these complex challenges in a collaborative manner. Working with the Rivers Trust to launch this £5 million fund, is just one example of the kind of collaborative work that will identify community needs and help restore and improve river health.  We will ensure that this work brings real benefits to local communities and that we build transparent accountability between partners.”

TW also drew attention to is catchment management initiatives, about which you can read more here. “The first step on this journey,’ the company said, “is to co-create a catchment plan with key stakeholders who either operate within this environment and/or have a vested interest in protecting and enhancing it. For the period of 2020 to 2025 we’re trialling this in three catchments and will be working in partnership to deliver the plans.”

It seems to me that there are some local initiative that could also be developed on a smaller and more immediate sale. Perhaps for these we need to look to local organisations like ARK.

Council motions

A motion from the Environment portfolio holder at the Full Council meeting (see p97) of West Berkshire Council (WBC) on 17 March”welcomed Thames Water’s initiation of a significant restoration project, including an end to sewage discharges, for the River Pang.” This was echoed by Charlotte Hitchmough from ARK: this river was, she pointed out, the victim of of one of TW’s worst-performing sewage works  which in 2020 spilled for over half the year. She welcomed the aspiration, but added that despite the Pang being a sensitive river, the spills haven’t stopped yet.

The same motion also “welcomes the Environment Act 2021″ but without any particular qualifications. I feel that a motion from a council which has SSSI rivers in its district should have been more forthright in demanding particular protection for its own waterways, as well as being more qualified in its praise for a bill which seems to have missed several opportunities.

The same WBC meeting sees a motion proposed by Councillor Steve Masters (Green) (see p98). This has already been supported by over 1,700 people and included the demand that “WBC should request a formal explanation from our local MPs as to why they voted down Lords Amendment 45 to the Environment Bill would have placed a legal duty on water companies in England and Wales “to make improvements to their sewerage systems and demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharges of untreated sewage”.” 

The accusation might be made (indeed I believe has been made) that the latter motion and the request that the MP be made to explain her thought processes is in some way political. I disagree. Holding our MP to account is what all of us need to do: also if sewage, or other matters like climate change, are going to be regarded as political change is going to be a lot more difficult to accomplish.

In a letter sent to Penny Post and the NWN this week, the Lib Dem’s spokesperson Adrian Abbs agreed that the pressure needed to be kept on MPs. Issues he suggested as needing urgent attention from our leaders included tightening rules and enforcement on discharges, compelling developers to meet all the costs of the required supply and disposal of water from new homes and ensuring that central capital funding was made available. He also draws attention to the Rivers Trust’s interactive map which, he suggests, makes it seem as if the UK has “a severe case of measles. No river,” he concludes, “appears safe.”

And finally…

How much effect these motions will have is debatable (though it’s right that councils should have their say). Real change will, however, probably only happen if we all accept that the massive problem of foul water is something we can all do our bit to control. Not putting anything except pooh, pee and paper down toilet is a good first step (wet wipes, even if claimed to be flushable, are very bad) and also doing what we can to manage the water that comes down on our property: this section on ARK’s website has some useful tips.

As with Covid, and climate change, all our circumstances are different: but one thing that both of these have shown is that top-down solutions are slow, expensive and not universally effective. Much the same can be said of sewage. We don’t like to think about it but it happens and it’s something we all contribute to. As well as our own responsible actions, constant pressure is needed – on our MPs, on the water companies, on the EA and on Ofwat. Only that will help reduce the pressure on our sewerage systems which, as residents of many part of this area will know, are becoming ever more acute.

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One Response

  1. Here is a brilliantly researched article where a considerable water dilemma is lucidly explained and properly discussed. However I am appalled that sewage is still being discharged into British waterways at all, let alone at the volume & rate indicated ‘… in 2020 there were 400,000 such discharges with the pipes running in various part of the country for three million hours’. Surely, as the urgent priority, this must be stopped?

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