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The UK moves to clean up its waterways

October 1, 2022
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Why this is important to Wisconsin businesses: A new government directive could open a range of opportunities for Wisconsin companies involved in stormwater drainage and environmental protection.

Water companies in the UK are facing the strictest rules on pollution from sewage that the government has ever established.

The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan will require companies to invest £56 billion ($66.8 billion USD) over 25 years to sharply reduce the number of storm sewer discharges and limit their impact on the environment by 2050. In particular, designated bathing waters and high-priority ecological sites will be top targets for more protection.

“We will require water companies to protect everyone who uses our water for recreation and ensure storm overflows pose no threat to the environment,” said Environment Secretary George Eustice, in the UK government announcement in August 2022. “Water companies will need to invest to stop unacceptable sewage spills so our rivers and coastlines can have greater protection than ever before.”

Water and wastewater companies have to take steps—such as increasing the capacity of their networks and treating sewage before it is discharged—to protect public health and prevent pollution. Failure to meet targets could result in substantial fines or refunds to customers.

The plan follows efforts by the government and its regulators, the Environment Agency and Ofwat, to improve the performance and accountability of water companies. Monitoring the frequency and duration of discharges has been stepped up from 5% in 2016 to nearly 90% in 2021.

Goals under the new government plan include:

  • By 2025, water companies will be required to invest £7.1 billion ($8.5 billion USD) to protect and improve the environment.
  • By 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near designated bathing waterways and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high priority nature sites.
  • By 2050, the rules will apply to all remaining storm overflows covered by government targets.

Water companies will have to publish discharge information in near-real time. They will also have to ensure their infrastructure keeps pace with increasing urban growth and climate change.

In 2021, the UK government launched its largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage discharges ever, encompassing more than 2,200 treatment works, after new data from the expanded monitoring showed permit breaches and other violations.

That followed 54 prosecutions against water companies since 2015, resulting in fines of nearly £140 million ($167 million USD).

Alternatives to the new rules are seen as too costly. For example, separating the sewage and rainwater systems could cost up to £600 billion ($723 billion USD) and would require significant disruption to cities and towns where the lines run underground. Another option, building storage tanks to capture excess water from heavy rains, would cost up to £240 billion ($289 billion USD). Either of those plans would significantly hike consumer water bills.

Wisconsin companies in related industries could find opportunities to help UK water and wastewater companies meet the government’s new goals.

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