The number of recorded sewage spills into England’s rivers and seas increased by 54 per cent last year compared to 2022, new data has revealed.

FactCheck takes a look.

How much sewage is dumped in rivers and beaches?

Water companies are sometimes allowed to spill sewage into open water following heavy rainfall to prevent the system becoming overloaded. They used relief valves called “storm overflows” to release extra rainwater and wastewater into rivers or seas.

According to the latest data, there were 464,056 “monitored spill events” in 2023 in England. A monitored spill event is a discharge to the environment and data is collected by the Environment Agency (EA).

This is up by 54 per cent from the just over 300,000 spills in 2022 and a 13 per cent increase compared to 2020.

Why are we seeing more recorded sewage spills?

The increase in spills is partly because 2023 was named by the Met Office as the sixth wettest year since its records began in 1836, according to the EA.

But the EA also points out that “heavy rainfall does not affect water companies’ responsibility to manage storm overflows in line with legal requirements”.

When data for 2022 was released a year ago, the EA said at the time that the reduction in spills was actually “largely as a result of last year’s dry weather, rather than water company improvements”.

Though it’s possible that the apparent upward trend in spills since 2016 – when the event duration monitoring system came into place – could be because the EA is collecting more data than it used to.

All storm overflows across the water network are now fitted with event duration monitors, which measure how long and how often spills go on for. That’s compared to just 7 per cent in 2010.

And the number of storm overflows that are returning data has risen from 12,000 in 2020 to 14,000 in 2023.

What does the government say?

Environment Agency director of water, Helen Wakeham, said: “Whilst it is disappointing that water companies have reported an increase in sewage spills in 2023, it is sadly not surprising.

“We are pleased to see record investment from the water sector, but we know it will take time for this to be reflected in spill data – it is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight.”

She added that “no other country has the level of monitoring we do” and “we are better placed than ever before to hold water companies accountable”.

Water minister Robbie Moore said: “We demanded that 100 per cent of overflows were monitored by the end of last year as part of our drive to improve transparency.

“Today’s data shows water companies must go further and faster to tackle storm overflows and clean up our precious waterways. We will be ensuring the Environment Agency closely scrutinise these findings and take enforcement action where necessary.”

(Image Credit: Ryan Jenkinson/Story Picture Agency/Shutterstock)