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And hours turned into days...

This blog is from Vaughan Lewis who, as well as working with WASP is also a member of the Evenlode Catchment Partnership.

That’s it. 2023 is officially history. A year in which just about everyone finally realised just how broken and bad our sewage and water industry is.

Front page news, weaponised in Parliament and lampooned by comedians; poo was everywhere, at times quite literally.

Evenlode pollution

Let’s put some numbers on the extent of the problem, focussing on our local rivers, with polluter in chief, Thames Water responsible for the disposal of our sewage.

The figures are truly alarming.

The River Evenlode suffered the indignity of having in excess of 11,350 hours of untreated sewage dumped into it during 2023. That is 473 days' worth during a 365 day period.

Here is the Evenlode's history as a victim of pollution.

The figures for the River Cherwell are even more jaw-dropping: within the space of just 365 days, Thames Water managed to pollute this river for a mammoth 914 total days' worth.

Thames Water has committed to ‘reducing discharges to an average of 24 overflows per year’ to improve river quality by 2025, so even by that unambitious target, things don’t seem to be going well.

But of course, who really thought they would? Dumping of untreated sewage into rivers is inextricably linked to the inability of sewerage systems and sewage treatment works to manage rainwater and groundwater. Under-investment by Thames Water since privatisation has resulted in the dereliction and under-capacity of many of their systems and we can see evidence of that all around us.

Below we can see Oxfordshire's rivers being used as a dumping ground by Thames Water - courtesy of

- an excellent resource. Screenshot 8 January 2024.

Privatisation of water was sold to the public as a way to develop a modern sewerage system but it has simply been exploited by a voracious and greedy shareholder pool that has emptied the corporate cupboards.

Now, 2024 starts with the worst spilling record ever recorded for much of the catchment and a company with broken finances threatening the regulator with an even poorer service and account balance unless they are protected from 'excessive' - we might call them 'appropriate', fines. They want to increase the rate of return to their 'investors' who have perhaps become accustomed to excessive benefits and of course, charge us an extra 40% per household for the privilege of being caught in the monopoly trap.

What then should we do? WASP and other campaign groups have worked day and night to bring the issues to the public’s attention. Some customers have responded by refusing to pay their bills.

Others have found novel ways of expressing their disgust.

But water company intransigence and government foot-dragging mean things are going far too slowly for us here at WASP and for our rivers.

Working on the principle of adapting the tools available, we are promoting the use of EDM data to levy charges on water companies for hours of spilled sewage.

Taking the profit out of pollution.

Let’s take the Evenlode as an example. Assume that 20% of the hours recorded by the Event Duration Monitors (EDMs- these count the hours of spilling) are illegal. That’s probably not a bad estimate; overall illegality for the whole Thames region has been assessed by WASP as 13% for 2020 and 2021.

The Evenlode has a significant number of longer, ’dry’ spills as the result of groundwater

infiltration (not a valid reason for legal spilling), hence the higher figure.

Using an illegality rate of 20%, the 2023 spill figure for the Evenlode is 2,270 hours.

Now, take a deterrent charge of say £1,000/hour as an example of a reasonable levy on a water company prioritising polluting our rivers and protecting its shareholder dividends, over its environmental obligations.

Multiplying hours by the levy, produces a grand total of £2.27 million payment due by Thames Water to us, the billpayers in 2023 for damage done to the River Evenlode.

Using the mean annual hours spilled and a similar percentage illegality, the resulting nearly £8 million over four years would be enough to incentivise even the most curmudgeonly of board members to believe that perhaps, just perhaps, some meaningful investment might make some of this financial pain go away.

Looking further afield, TW dumped a total of 192,000 hours of untreated sewage across its region during 2023. Utilising an overall illegality rate of 13% and a per-hour levy of £1,000, then TW would be poorer to the tune of £25 million in 2023 but this levy would have to be made on dividends or whatever cunning financial vehicle was devised to carry money to the shareholders, and it may have to be increased to get their attention to end the sewage scandal.

The system has the simple beauty that it is market-based (the polluter pays per hour of sewage dumped), it utilises proven and available technology (building an algorithm to accommodate rainfall rates would not be difficult) and of course it does not take away the option of prosecution by Environment Agency in extreme cases - which is all they do in any event.

The money raised could in part, be used to revitalise and reinvent the Environment Agency into a regulatory body that its staff and society could be proud of, rather than the weak, broken apologist for the water industry that it is today.

What could possibly go wrong?

Happy New Year



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