Ofwat has written to all water companies in England and Wales calling on them to meet the growing expectations about the use of storm overflows and signalled that further action is needed.
The intervention from Ofwat’s new interim Chief Executive comes following concern about the increased use of storm overflows in recent years and the impact they can have on waterways, biodiversity and local communities.
During wet weather, storm overflows act to prevent sewers becoming overloaded and, in some circumstances, can result in wastewater being released into rivers.
Writing to the Chief Executives of water companies, Ofwat’s David Black has called on them to build on progress they have made on other fronts with a focus on meeting the challenge from the use of storm overflows. In the most recent price review, Ofwat approved £1.2bn of investment to reduce the use of storm overflows.
Ofwat is seeking specific assurance that water company Boards are closely monitoring performance, using the right data, and providing the appropriate check and challenge on the use of storm overflows.
The regulator has warned that where companies do not have the right measures in place, it could take action against them.
David Black, Ofwat’s interim Chief Executive, said: “Caring for our rivers is a complex and multi-sector issue, but is clear to me that the positive strides the water sector has made in other areas of environmental performance are not evident when it comes to storm overflows.
“This is a sector with genuine ambitions to be, and be seen as, leaders when it comes to caring for the environment. The challenges from the use of storm overflows present an opportunity for water companies to show they mean business and can meet the growing expectations on them.”
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “I have made it very clear to water companies that they must improve their environmental performance – with a particular need for reducing sewage discharges from storm overflows. To this end we have added new legally-binding obligations on water companies and government in the Environment Bill to tackle pollution in rivers.
“Cooperation on this issue is important – which is why water companies are valued members of the Storm Overflows Taskforce. The Taskforce has already taken steps to improve monitoring and transparency as well as uniting the industry on a long-term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows.
“We also need to hold water companies to account and the Environment Agency’s increased programme of monitoring means we have growing and more informed data on storm overflows. Ofwat has made an important challenge to water companies on this evidence and I look forward to hearing how water companies plan to deliver improvements to protect customers and the environment.”
Environment Agency Chief Executive Sir James Bevan said: “As regulators, both Ofwat and the Environment Agency have an important job in holding water companies to account and taking regulatory action where needed to enforce the law. We work closely with Ofwat on delivering improvements to the environment through the water industry.
“The permits we issue to water companies legally oblige them to monitor and report spill data from their storm overflows – any failure to report a breach or follow the terms of the permit is an offence. We recently wrote to water companies to set out our high expectations on storm overflows and met with company CEOs to reiterate the need for action.
“Water companies are a valued part of the Storm Overflows Taskforce which has set the target to eliminate harm from storm overflows. However, we know from our monitoring that they still have a long way to go to on environmental performance and to reduce reliance on storm overflows.”
Ceri Davies, NRW’s Executive Director of Evidence, Planning and Permitting said: “We work closely with Ofwat, water companies and stakeholders to deliver improvements to the environment. The water industry have a vital role in making sure that their assets do not impact the health of our rivers and ecosystems.
“We want all water companies to meet the expectations of their customers and the needs of our environment and we will continue to challenge them to make sure storm overflows are properly controlled.”
“Our permits require the water industry in Wales to monitor and report spill data from their assets. Any failure to report a breach or follow the terms of the permit is an offence. It is clear from the data that they still have a long way to go to ensure the sewerage network has the resilience to combat climate change, and deal with the pressures of growth.”
There has been a growing focus on storm overflows especially through the Storm Overflow Taskforce which was established by Defra in August 2020 and which includes regulators and companies. In response, earlier this year, water companies committed to provide more real-time data on sewage discharges at bathing sites and to accelerate work to install monitoring devices by 2023 in England and March 2022 in Wales.