Serious risk a swimmer will die from pollution in English waters, MPs told | Water

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A clean river campaigner has warned of a serious risk someone will die from swimming in English rivers and seas because of the level of E coli from water pollution.

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Charles Watson of River Action, speaking on Wednesday as the bathing water season officially opened, said that with warm weather approaching and half-term in a week, thousands of children and families would be taking to rivers, lakes and seas. Most of these sites are not monitored for E coli, as they are not designated bathing sites.

Watson’s organisation tested for E coli in the River Thames before the Oxford and Cambridge boat race last month, and found E coli levels that were off the scale in terms of public health.

Dr Rob Collins, of the Rivers Trust, said there was no monitoring of the pathogens in rivers, including Cryptosporidium, which spread water-borne diseases.

“I am not exaggerating when I say someone is going to die,” Watson told MPs on the environmental audit committee (EAC). “There is no guidance being produced by the Environment Agency regarding public health. Thousands of children and families will be taking to rivers and lakes at half-term none of which have bathing status.

“No one is monitoring this.”

Watson said the Department for Environment’s designation of 12 new river bathing water sites this week – where the water will be tested from May to September – was welcome. But the water quality in the rivers was poor. Just 16% of rivers in England pass tests for good biological status, and none pass tests for chemical pollution.

The warning came as the Labour MP Clive Lewis called for the water industry in England to be brought into public ownership.

In an early day motion laid before parliament, Lewis said the industry had proved it was not capable of building the infrastructure required to deal with the impact of climate breakdown, including increased flooding and droughts.

Lewis and other MPs challenged water industry representatives and the regulator Ofwat on Wednesday as the EAC sought answers on what progress had been made to tackle sewage pollution in rivers and seas.

Lewis said: “Water companies in England have incurred debts of £64bn and paid out £78bn in dividends since they were privatised, debt-free, in 1989 … Water companies paid out £1.4bn in dividends in 2022 even as 11 of them were fined in the same year for missing performance targets.”

Climate change threats, which are making flooding and drought more severe, required a change to the way the industry was managed to build in resilience, Lewis said.

MPs are putting pressure on the industry as the regulator Ofwat prepares to announce whether it will allow Thames Water, which has total debts of £18bn, to hike customer fees by more than 40% and avoid high fines for pollution, in order to get the equity funding it needs to continue operating.

Ofwat is due to give its first public view on private water firms’ business plans in June. The government has assembled a team, under the banner of Project Timber, to draw up contingency plans to rescue Thames if needed, which could include the bulk of its debt being added to the public purse.

But Lewis said a government bailout of Thames Water would send a dangerous signal to other utilities that reckless decisions carry no private risk. He urged Ofwat to reject Thames Water’s request to increase bills, face lower pollution fines and continue to pay dividends.

Collins from the Rivers Trust told MPs that rivers were in a dire state. “We are flatlining,” he said. A target of the majority of rivers reaching a good status by 2027 under the the water framework directive would not be met, he said.

“We are going to limp along to 21% having good status in England by then.”

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An inquiry by the EAC in 2022 into sewage pollution found that rivers were being subjected to a chemical cocktail of sewage, agricultural waste and plastic pollution which was suffocating biodiversity and putting public health at risk.

But discharges of raw sewage and pollution into waterways from treated sewage have continued and last year water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and coastal waters for a record 3.6m hours, an increase of 105% on the previous 12 months. The scale of the discharges of untreated waste made 2023 the worst year for storm water pollution.

The data showed that failure to maintain assets and a lack of capacity at treatment plants were the main reasons for the scale of raw sewage flowing from high discharging overflows.

Guardian analysis showed that more than 2,000 overflows owned by a number of companies discharged raw sewage into rivers and seas at a scale that should spark an immediate investigation into illegal breaches of permit conditions.

Figures obtained by the BBC on Wednesday revealed United Utilities dumped millions of litres of raw sewage into Windermere in the Lake District in February after a fault took 10 hours to fix.

The bathing water season began on Wednesday, meaning the Environment Agency will begin the testing of 451 bathing water areas across England.

The risk to public health from sewage pollution was exposed in Devon, where the UK Health Security Agency said 16 cases of cryptosporidiosis, a diarrhoea-type illness caused by Cryptosporidium, had been confirmed. The waterborne disease can be caused by swallowing contaminated water in rivers and streams.

This Saturday thousands will take to coasts and rivers across the UK to protest about the state of the nation’s waterways, in paddle-out events coordinated by Surfers Against Sewage.

Protests are taking place at West Pier in Brighton and at Gyllyngvase Beach in Falmouth, as well as the Great Ouse river in Bedford.

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Sandra Laville

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