Statement on the OEP investigation on the regulation of combined sewage overflows

The River Thames at Port Meadow, with trees in the background and a blue sky

Freshwater Habitats Trust is deeply concerned by the increase in pollution from untreated sewage in our rivers[1]. We applaud those organisations that are campaigning on this issue, creating an upsurge in public concern about the state of our freshwaters. We also welcome the announcement that the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) will investigate the regulation of combined sewage overflows.

However, we believe that it is important to focus on more than sewage to improve the poor ecological quality of most of our rivers. To see adequate benefits to biodiversity, rivers also need to be free of other pollutants, which can come from many sources.

Many streams and rivers impacted by treated and untreated sewage effluents are also damaged by polluted runoff from the land and we must control this too if rivers are to support healthy and diverse wildlife communities.

Simply reducing sewage pollution will not result in clean rivers, but it is a start.

While it is essential to protect our rivers, we must also properly protect other freshwaters, such as the numerous ponds, small lakes, springs and headwater streams, which are vital for freshwater biodiversity[2].

As a wildlife charity we believe that other measures are necessary if we want to see real improvement in our freshwater biodiversity. These should include large-scale creation of clean water pond networks, on and off floodplains, which directly restore unpolluted water to the landscape, measures to better protect headwater streams and a focus on management and restoration of abundant small fens and mires. In addition to being much cheaper than the significant changes to infrastructure needed to clean up sewage pollution, these measures would lead to rapid improvements in biodiversity.

Treating freshwaters as a network of habitats will achieve best value for money in improving the water environment as a whole, with sewage pollution just one factor in a complex mix of threats to freshwater life.

As the UK’s leading charity for all freshwaters, Freshwater Habitats Trust is reversing the long decline of freshwater wildlife by creating a national network of wilder, cleaner, wetter and connected freshwater landscapes. We hope that the public interest in sewage pollution in rivers will lead to growing awareness of the importance of the healthy functioning of the whole freshwater network, which is essential for biodiversity and our own health and wellbeing.

 

[1]Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, summarised the pressures from storm overflows in the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s report on Water quality in Rivers (para 136): “Over the last several decades, those combined sewage overflows…are spilling more frequently and spilling larger volumes. We think that is likely to be happening because there has been more development and therefore more people and therefore more sewage, and because climate change is causing more violent weather and therefore more rain and heavier rainfall events”. 

[2]POSTNOTE Number 661 January 2022: Reducing agricultural pressures on freshwater ecosystems; Biggs et al 2016.

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