Raw sewage was dumped in county rivers “hundreds of times” last year and one is “overrun with fungus”, a councillor has claimed.
Gloucestershire’s Liberal Democrat leader Paul Hodgkinson said one river which flows through the county, the River Windrush, has findings which are “shocking and visible to the naked eye”.
There are three water companies which operate in the county – Thames Water, Severn Trent and Wessex Water – and Mr Hodgkinson claimed in a council meeting on Wednesday (September 9) that all three of them have dumped discharged sewage into some of the county’s rivers more than a hundred times each in 2019.
Speaking in Gloucestershire County Council’s full council meeting, he said:
Wessex Water dumped raw sewage into the River Avon 108 times near Tetbury;
Severn Trent discharged sewage into the River Frome near Stroud 141 times last year;
And Thames Water dumped it in the River Coln near Fairford 132 times for a total 2,207 hours in 2019.
Thames Water said sewage discharges only happen when there is no alternative and are heavily diluted by rainwater, adding it agrees with the total durations referenced but “not the number of discharges”.
Wessex Water said of the 11 storm overflows within Gloucestershire, none “have an adverse impact on river water quality”.
Mr Hodgkinson (LD, Bourton-on-the-Water and Northleach) said in the meeting: “Despite it being perfectly legal for anyone to swim in or use these rivers for water activities, tragically, many of our county’s rivers are flooded with harmful pollutants including raw sewage discharge from water companies.
“This is causing extensive damage to the fragile ecosystems supported by the waterway and proving a public health concern for anyone accessing the river.
“While it is legally permissible for water treatment operators to dump untreated sewage in cases of extreme weather, it is the belief of many campaigners that this has become routine behaviour for many sewage operators.”
He continued: “In the absence of government regulation or enforcement of existing rules, amazing work has already been carried out by local community groups such as ‘Windrush Against Sewage Pollution’.
“Over the past two years they have documented the levels of effluent being dumped into the River Windrush near Bourton on the Water – in my own division.
“Their findings were shocking and visible to the naked eye, where once clear rivers teamed with wildlife, they are now murky and over-run with sewage fungus.”
Mr Hodgkinson proposed the authority writes to the Government “to ban the routine dumping of raw sewage into our rivers”, but instead councillors voted to take the matter to the Environment scrutiny committee for further work.
What the water companies said
A spokesman for Severn Trent said: “Our system’s designed to stop customers’ homes being flooded during times of heavy rain.
“It does this by redirecting the waste water, which is mainly rainwater, to a nearby watercourse to stop it becoming overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of water.
“This is fully agreed with the Environment Agency, and by doing this we hope to make sure no one has to suffer sewage flowing in their home, which is a terrible experience for anyone.”
A Wessex Water spokesman said: “Storm overflows operate during heavy rainfall to protect homes and businesses from flooding and rarely cause a pollution.
“It’s predominantly stormwater that is released due to the sewerage network reaching capacity. However, they are unacceptable in 2020 and we would embrace the idea of getting rid of them.
“Since 2000 we have invested £181million to upgrade nearly 600 CSOs, and there are plans to improve more over the next five years. But we also need a change of approach by government to no longer allow developers to connect surface water to combined systems, which adds to sewer capacity and causes overflows to operate.”
A Thames Water spokeswoman said: “We welcome the opportunity to speak to the council about storm discharges which we’re working hard to minimise, while also looking at how we can improve the system for the future, including reducing groundwater infiltration and increasing capacity.
“We’ve also invested heavily in monitoring equipment to understand how frequently spills occur and help us plan improvements.
“We fully appreciate just how well loved the Coln and its tributaries are and why people want to use them for recreation, however they should be mindful that sewage discharges aren’t the only sources of pollutants.
“Animal faeces from livestock and wildlife, along with run off from farms and roads, also contribute to the hazards.”