The England and Wales water regulator, Ofwat, has unlawfully failed to stop water companies discharging raw sewage into rivers, campaigners say in a legal case.
The environmental campaign group Wild Justice is seeking a judicial review of Ofwat’s failure to monitor and take enforcement action against water firms that discharge raw sewage into waterways.
In documents filed to the high court, Dr Ruth Tingay, director of Wild Justice, said: “We are particularly concerned that a continued lack of action on Ofwat’s part will lead to a collapse in biodiversity, both within rivers and coastal waters, and, as a knock-on effect, in the areas surrounding those waters. This will be disastrous for nature conservation generally and wildlife in particular.”
The legal action is supported by investigations by Wild Justice and Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp), which used environmental information requests and freedom of information laws to reveal, according to the legal action, that Ofwat takes no active steps to monitor and enforce its legal obligations to reduce and stop sewage discharges. When serious concerns are brought directly to its attention, the legal case says, Ofwat has not taken action.
Wild Justice says the failure to act is having a serious impact on watercourses affected by sewage plants that do not conform with the urban waste water treatment (UWWT) regulations and regularly empty raw sewage into freshwater. They say the regulator has a legal duty under the Water Industry Act 1991 and the UWWT regulations to monitor and enforce water and sewage companies’ actions.
The consequences are extreme, creating and maintaining excessive nutrient levels that are highly detrimental to the health and biodiversity of those watercourses, with wider implications for the environment and human health of freshwater and marine ecosystems, they say.
They say anyone whose hobby or profession brings them into contact with potentially infected water – surfers, rowers, anglers and wild swimmers for example – is at risk.
Raw sewage was discharged into rivers 375,000 times over more than 2.7m hours in 2021, according to Environment Agency data.
Carol Day, of Leigh Day solicitors, representing Wild Justice, said: “Our client is bringing this case because it wants action to be taken to protect our waterways. Wild Justice is of the view that had Ofwat fulfilled its statutory duty to ensure sewage treatments works are fit for purpose in the 21st century, the widespread and damaging discharge of untreated sewage into our rivers and seas could have been averted.”
Wild Justice is funding its actions through a crowdfunding appeal.
An investigation by MPs on the environmental audit committee earlier this year called for a step change in regulatory action by Ofwat and investment by water companies to restore rivers to good ecological health, protect biodiversity and adapt to a changing climate.
MPs said: “The water regulator, Ofwat, has hitherto focused on security of water supply and on keeping bills down with insufficient emphasis on facilitating the investment necessary to ensure that the sewerage system in England is fit for the 21st century.”
Only 14% of rivers are in good biological health. There has been no improvement in the state of English rivers since 2016, despite government promises that by 2027 75% of English rivers would be rated good.
A public outcry at the scale of raw sewage discharges, which are supposed to take place only after exceptional rainfall, has forced the government to act, saying the level of releases is totally unacceptable. It is consulting on a plan to reduce discharges, promising that by 2040, 40% will have been eliminated. But campaigners say the plan lacks urgency.
Ofwat said: “Ofwat’s focus has always been, and continues to be, ensuring companies act in the interests of customers and the environment. We take our responsibilities on the environment extremely seriously and have consistently pushed companies to do the same.
“While we share Wild Justice’s concern with the potential impact of water companies’ wastewater activities on the environment, their characterization and understanding of Ofwat’s work is incorrect.
“We drive improved environmental performance from water companies and hold them to account to deliver on their obligations. This includes significant monitoring and information gathering on water companies, and holding them to account through our enforcement powers, our price review process, our annual reporting and more.
“Where companies fall short, we act – over the last five years, for example, we have imposed penalties and payments of over £250 million. In addition, we have a live investigation into wastewater treatment works which is looking at potential non-compliance in all water and wastewater companies.”