Sewage discharged into rivers hits 400,000, but better news from Ilkley

Water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers in England more than 400,000 times in 2020, according to recent figures published by the Environment Agency. Untreated effluent, including human waste, wet wipes and condoms, was released into waterways for more than three million hours last year.

The Environment Agency allows water utilities to release sewage into rivers and streams after extreme weather events such as prolonged heavy rain. This protects properties from flooding and prevents sewage from backing up into streets and homes. The agency says that overflows are “not a sign that the system is faulty”, and that they are “a necessary part of the existing sewerage system.”

Campaigners however don’t accept this and have argued for greater investment in the capacity of sewage systems to cope with heavy demand during extreme weather, which may be becoming more frequent because of climate change.

Yorkshire Water had the second highest spillages at 65,083 while United Utilities, which operates in the northwest, had 113,490 (source Environment Agency).

Over recent years, the huge growth of river-based water sports, such as paddle boarding, open water swimming and kayaking, has created a growing public concern around the state of UK rivers and waterways. With millions set to flock to British beaches and riversides over the summer, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), a marine conservation charity founded in Cornwall in 1990 and campaigns to end sewage pollution in seas and rivers, has been busy giving its Safer Seas Service app an update to help people stay even safer in the water. With a host of new features, it has been rebranded as the Safer Seas & River Service. The new app now includes river locations, initially the River Dee in Wales, Warleigh Weir in Somerset, and Ilkley on the River Wharf in Yorkshire, as well as a number of streams in south west England. You can find out more about it at

Meanwhile a stretch of the River Wharfe in Ilkley will have its pollution levels monitored by the Environment Agency to ensure it is safe for swimming. The move follows a campaign by local residents who said they had seen “human solid waste” on the river bank. Becky Malby, from the Ilkley Clean River Group said the group had been campaigning over pollution levels for over two years after human sewage was seen where people were “picnicking and playing”.

She said she was “delighted” the designated bathing area encompassed the nearby sewage treatment works. “That is going to have to trigger a major clean-up of the system,” she added.

Samples are being taken between May and September. If bacteria levels are too high action will be taken to reduce pollution.



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