Flushing away our water quality

We are told the investment needed to meet water standards is too high, but the truth is that more has been extracted in dividends than invested in improvements.

This week my attention was caught by a battle not in our usual fields (nor on land at all), but important none the less.

As children in the ‘60s, we swam and fished in the River Dart, which runs past our farm, without worry. We took it for granted. But by the early ‘80s, few people would risk swimming; in quieter stretches, the riverbed became covered in up to a foot of brown algal growth.

Sitting with a notorious local poacher in the early hours while he plied his trade, the reason became obvious: the river changed colour and developed a horrendous stench as the local sewage plant opened its gates under cover of darkness. Soon the river was dead, and most of the fish gone. If you wanted to swim, you went to a pool or drove upstream. Life was poorer.

Then, in 1989, Thatcher privatised South West Water. Whether through better management, access to private capital, better regulation by the Environment Agency, or the threat of legal action from Europe, our river became cleaner. Water bills rose hugely, but it seemed to work; farmers built better storage for slurry, and sewage treatment became much more effective.

Today, you can again see families picnicking by the river and swimming on sunny days. I find that I have once more started to take this amenity for granted. But behind the scenes, things are changing. After decades of raking in billions in profit for shareholders, water companies have failed to invest in vital infrastructure – and across the UK, our sewage system is now unfit for purpose.

Wash reservoir
The UK’s waters are a vital part of the natural environment.

We are told the investment needed to meet water standards is too high. But the truth is that more has been extracted in dividends than invested in improvements; one recent report found that South West Water had an average 27 per cent profit margin over ten years. In 2020, there were over 400,000 discharges of untreated sewage into English waters, and the UK ranks last in EU countries for bathing water quality.

Unbelievably, MPs recently voted to drop a new amendment to the Environment Bill that would force water companies to stop raw sewage entering our waters.

Thanks to campaigners led by Surfers Against Sewage, at the time of writing huge public pressure has almost overturned this vote, in what would be one of the greatest wins for the protection of water quality ever. This (I hope) victory shows how much we can achieve when we speak up to protect our natural world, and the power of collective action. You can learn more and find the latest news at sas.org.uk/EndSewagePollution-SewageBill.

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  1. Excellent article which I’ve shared with my local MP who was one of the MPs that voted to drop a new amendment to the Environment Bill. I thought he needed/deserved to read this article and I looked forward to his response.

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