Defra targets sewage spills and chalk streams at industry roundtable

Defra made clear its intention to challenge the volume of sewage discharged to watercourses from storm overflows, and to increase protection for chalk streams, at a roundtable hosted by water minister Rebecca Pow last week.

The meeting was attended by 15 water company chief executives and representatives from Ofwat, the Environment Agency, Natural England, Water UK, CCW and the Drinking Water Inspectorate. The parties discussed the content of two recent letters sent to the companies: one on supporting a green recovery from Covid 19, and the other on increasing ambition for the water environment.

Pow (pictured) said discharges from storm overflows must be reduced, and noted the Environment Bill will allow government to set legally binding wastewater targets. The round table discussed a newly formed storm overflow taskforce set up between Defra, the EA, Ofwat and Water UK, and plans to reduce the frequency and volume of spills.

She also highlighted the risk to chalk streams from low flows, poor water quality and unsustainable abstraction and urged water companies to significantly raise their ambition to improve chalk stream catchments and to join her at a Chalk Stream Summit she will host on 16 October.

The meeting also touched on: changes to the £5 billion Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP) to make it more outcome-focused, water resources and leakage.

Pow said: “Water companies need to take their environmental obligations seriously and this impetus must come from the top. Despite investment from the industry, the damage inflicted on our environment – our rivers, lakes, streams and the wildlife that rely on them – is still far too great. “Today we discussed a number of issues I feel strongly about, including storm overflows, and how we can work together to see much more ambitious improvements. This country’s green recovery from coronavirus can only happen if water companies step up and play their part.”

Chief executive of Water UK, Christine McGourty, said the industry “welcomed the opportunity today to discuss progress and next steps,” adding: “Companies have stepped up with significant proposals to contribute to the green, economic recovery, have a key role to play as a founder of the new storm overflows taskforce, and are finding new ways of protecting and enhancing precious resources like the nation’s chalk streams.

"We are determined to lead the way in the face of the major challenges ahead, such as climate change. The water industry will be the first to develop a joint plan to achieve net zero carbon by 2030.”

The Environment Agency’s annual report on water companies’ environmental performance will be published later this month.