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Avon and Stour pollution readings “through the roof”, as Environment Agency find sewage spills have more than doubled

AN explosion of public outrage greeted the news that the amount of raw sewage being pumped into rivers more than doubled in 2023.

It backs up what volunteers monitoring pollutants in the Stour and the Avon in the Stratford area told the Herald this week: that they had found levels to be “through the roof”.

Dr Anna Pike pictured this week taking a sample of water from the stream in Stretton-on-Fosse. Photo: Mark Williamson
Dr Anna Pike pictured this week taking a sample of water from the stream in Stretton-on-Fosse. Photo: Mark Williamson

Despite its best efforts to put a positive spin on the statistics contained in the Environment Agency’s (EA) damning annual report, Severn Trent, which covers the Stratford district, along with other water companies, looked mired in controversy as public anger grew.

The data shows there were 464,056 spills in 2023, up 54 per cent from 301,091 in 2022. The duration of the sewage spills has gone up 105 per cent, from 1,754,921 hours in 2022, to 3,606,170 hours in 2023, the figures show.

Although the EA acknowledged this was partly due to England experiencing its sixth-wettest year on record and having better monitoring systems, campaigners nonetheless took the opportunity to point the finger of blame at water companies.

James Wallace, CEO of River Action, said: “The scale of the discharges by water companies is a final indictment of a failing industry.

“Having run amok with billpayers’ money for decades, they discharged untreated sewage into rivers and coastal waters for more than 3.6 million hours last year from 464,000 spills through storm overflows that are supposed to be only used in extreme weather events.

“Rather than investing in future-proofing their infrastructure, fixing leaky pipes, upgrading wastewater treatment plants, these international businesses have plundered our most precious natural resource, fresh water.”

Even before the news broke, the Herald had been looking at the issues – with last week’s front page recounting the problems with sewage polluting rivers, floods and an overburdened infrastructure as more houses are built in Newbold.

We’d also heard from the citizens’ science project, SafeAvon, which sees volunteers taking samples at sites along the rivers Avon and Stour, using standardised methodology. It found very high levels of nitrates and phosphates (indicative of sewage and agricultural run-off), including in some areas where readings were “through the roof”.

When the Herald put the findings to Severn Trent, it chose not to address questions on pollutants but instead questioned the veracity of the research. A Severn Trent spokesperson said: “We welcome citizen science projects but it’s important the data is sampled, tested and interpreted to the correct standard. Unfortunately, we can’t recognise this data as it presents an inaccurate picture of the health of the waterways sampled due to some apparent inconsistencies with its collection and presentation. There are many factors that contribute to river health, and we’re making progress in playing our part to reduce impact on waterways, continuing to invest hundreds of millions of pounds, and working with farmers to help incentivise regenerative farming practices and help rivers reach good ecological status.”

One of the SafeAvon volunteers, Dr Anna Pike, who holds a PhD in biology, hit back at the water company’s reaction: “Severn Trent’s response focuses on differences between SafeAvon’s testing techniques and those used by the EA, with their vastly greater resources. It doesn’t address or acknowledge the high pollution levels that the group has registered in our local streams and rivers, nor provide any reassurance that they are taking the issue seriously.

“Some of our readings are off the scale of our measuring equipment. For instance, the phosphate measurement for the brook just below the Stretton-on-Fosse Combined Sewage outlet registered a literally off-the-scale reading – that is above 2.5 mg/l by an undetermined amount.

“Whilst I recognise that one individual result does not indicate overall river health, across the group, however, readings have been consistently high for a period of months and if nothing else, indicate a worrying trend which is hard to ignore.”

See next week’s Herald for a detailed look at the Environment Agency report and Severn Trent’s response.

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