River sewage discharges 'not a 21st-century solution' admits Anglian Water

The storm drain gushing out what may have been sewage onto Sheringham beach after torrential rain. P

A storm drain gushing out what may have been sewage onto Sheringham beach after torrential rain - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2020

An Anglian Water boss has admitted that dumping sewage into Norfolk’s rivers and beaches is “completely unacceptable”.

Robin Price, director of quality and environment at the water company, made the admission in response to a grilling from a group of north Norfolk councillors.

Mr Price accepted that dumping sewage water was an outdated practice and the public needs to be better informed about when they happen.

Recent figures show sewage was pumped into Norfolk rivers for the equivalent of more than 1,000 days last year. 

The River Wensum in Norwich had the most sewage spills in Norfolk last year

Just 8pc of Norfolk's rivers are rated as being "good" quality - Credit: Denise Bradley

Water companies can dump waste into rivers and the sea during heavy rainfall, to stop drains backing up and flooding homes with sewage. 

Discharges come from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) which contain not only storm water but also untreated human and industrial waste. 

Mr Price said: “We realise now [CSOs are] not how we should be dealing with surface water flooding or sewer flooding in 2022. 

"We have a commitment to ensure we are not causing harm or public nuisance to [natural] assets.”  

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He said any harm was “completely unacceptable” and CSOs were "not a 21st-century solution".   

To combat the issue, monitors are being installed on overflows, giving information on where spills occur so the company can assess where issues are happening and what can be done.

Already 300 highest-risk CSOs have already been removed from the network.  

He added: “A spill does not automatically equate to environmental damage or harm and we are doing a lot of work to understand specifically the environmental harm. 

"Some of the early thinking is that there is not a lot of environmental damage but it is still unacceptable and the aesthetics and the public health implications are not acceptable.”  

Anglian Water wants to relocate its Cambridge sewage plant to make way for more than 5,000 as part of a development

An Anglian Water representative said it was lobbying the government to end automatic rights for housing developments to connect to the sewage network - Credit: Supplied

While Anglian Water is looking to increase its number of storm-water tanks, Mr Price said this was “not the answer” to the problem, which he said used a lot of concrete and “stored the problem up” next to beaches and rivers. 

Instead, he said the company needed to look at the wider system, work out where drainage water is getting into the system and blockages are happening. 

Anglian Water is also lobbying the government to end the right for new developments to be automatically connected to the sewage network and for surface water drainage systems to be mandated in large planning schemes. 

Nigel Dixon, the chairman of North Norfolk District Council's (NNDC) overview and scrutiny committee questioned what the company was doing to keep people informed about discharge events. 

Mr Dixon said no one is comfortable knowing the events happen but if the public were informed they could avoid swimming in affected areas. 

Mr Price said discharges are published on their website and shared with the Rivers Trust, Surfers Against Sewage and beach alert systems.  

However, he accepted this was “not agile enough” and a government environment act would require them to provide “near-real-time information”. 

Mr Price said Anglian Water wanted to replicate the scheme for rivers. 

This would include a postcode checker, giving information on what has happened in the local environment, which could be available by the end of the year. 

Nigel Dixon, councillor on North Norfolk District Council. Picture: NNDC

Nigel Dixon, councillor on North Norfolk District Council. Picture: NNDC - Credit: Archant

Speaking after the meeting Mr Dixon described the briefing with Anglian Water as worthwhile but said he thought more could be done to keep the public informed about spills.

"That's something that can be done straight away," Mr Dixon said.

"People often find out about these events when they end up among things they don't expect.

"It's off-putting to tourists and can be harmful to health. When you go swimming you don't expect to have to check an app."

Mr Dixon said he appreciated Anglian Water not wanting automatic connections to the sewage system for new developments, suggesting contributions for improving infrastructure could be the solution.

Earlier this week county council leaders rejected calls to demand more enforcement to stop sewage being released into Norfolk Rivers.  

Rob Colwell, Liberal Democrat county councillor for Gaywood South, submitted a motion to Norfolk County Council to environment secretary George Eustice urging him to take enforcement action against water companies which fail to reduce "adverse impacts of storm overflow discharges".