Spending on storm overflows to be tripled by Wessex Water amid public anger over discharges

May 19, 2023

Wessex Water has outlined plans to triple investment in tackling storm overflows to £9m a month as part of the biggest shake-up of the sewerage network since the Victorian era.

The Bath-headquartered firm has already invested £69m to protect the region’s rivers and beaches over the past year, including schemes to deal with heavy deluges of rainwater to reduce storm overflows. 

The move comes as public fury increases over the amount of contaminated water being discharged into rivers and seas by water companies across the country.

Last week Wessex Water responded to claims by charity Surfers Against Sewage that questioned levels of trust in the company and suggested it “fails to adhere to minimum environmental standards”.

Wessex Water told Bath Business News that it was fully transparent when it came to storm overflows automatically operated to protect properties from flooding. 

It currently invests around £3m a month to improve storm overflows, which are licensed to operate automatically during or after heavy rainfall to protect properties from flooding.

Wessex Water said there had also been major investment to remove phosphorus and other nutrients through advanced treatment at water recycling centres, work which is further safeguarding and improving river ecology.
From 2025, the firm’s investment will be tripled £9m a month for further improvements to storm overflows, subject to regulatory approval.
Wessex Water director of infrastructure development Matt Wheeldon said: “We know our customers care passionately about protecting watercourses, whether or not they use them for swimming or recreation, and we share their passion.

“That’s why we’re investing unprecedented amounts to help improve river and coastal water quality, including reducing how often storm overflows operate and minimising the environmental impact of our treatment processes.”

According to the Environment Agency’s river quality data, storm overflows account for less than 1% of the reasons why rivers in the Wessex Water region do not achieve good ecological status. This is because what is discharged is heavily diluted by rain or groundwater.

Overflow discharges significantly decreased in 2022 due to a combination of prolonged dry weather and the company’s investment.

Mr Wheeldon added: “We would love to stop all storm overflow discharges immediately but unfortunately there is no quick fix – eliminating them completely would mean re-plumbing a sewerage system which has been built in this way for over 150 years.

“The solutions we’re rolling out include separating out rainwater to stop it entering sewers and constructing large storage tanks to contain the combined rain and sewage for later treatment.

“Beyond this, we have further plans for nature-based solutions such as natural wetlands and reed beds. It is vital that regulators support these schemes to help reduce carbon impacts, minimise bill rises for customers and greatly improve river water quality.”

Wessex Water said numerous other factors could affect water quality, including wildlife and agricultural run-off, and the company had spearheaded collaboration with farmers on catchment partnerships to bring in cost-effective solutions.

Wessex Water has also developed an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-led app which predicts bacteria levels using other parameters that can be continuously obtained from sensors within bathing or recreational waters.

It has already been used AI to provide real-time water quality information at Warleigh Weir, near Bath, Baltic Wharf in Bristol and in Poole Harbour, where it is providing water quality forecasts for the shellfishery and recreational businesses.

Mr Wheeldon added: “We have identified over 50 other river locations across our region popular for recreation and we’re working with local authorities and community groups to provide better information on water quality, temperature and river flow.”

Wessex Water was the first UK company to publish data on overflow operations 365 days a year and provides information on bathing waters and other recreational areas to local councils and Surfers Against Sewage.

Since 2000, the company has upgraded nearly 600 storm overflows and current investment will reduce the number of hours storm overflows operate for by approximately 25% by 2025.

Claverton Down-headquartered Wessex Water, which is owned by YTL Power International, part of the Malaysian conglomerate YTL, supplies water and sewage services to 2.8m customers across an area of 10,000 sq km stretching from Bath and Wiltshire to Bristol, Somerset, Dorset and parts of Gloucestershire.

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