AN ENVIRONMENTAL campaign group has raised concerns about the amount of sewage entering the UK's water from storm overflows and has called for more to be done to protect the five rivers flowing into Salisbury.

They said the problems occur when water companies discharge sewage via storm overflows - part of a process to avoid sewage backing up into people's homes which should happen infrequently. 

Salisbury's Extinction Rebellion (XR) group campaigned against the government's 'watered-down' approach to improving environmental protections to prevent sewage earlier this year. 

XR spokesperson, Di Cross said: "Salisbury’s five rivers help to define the city and we must protect them.

"Access to clean water is a fundamental human right – as recognised by the United Nations – and yet for decades now in Britain, it has been treated as no more than a commodity.

"The water industry was privatised 30 years ago and during that time – and while making huge profits and its directors drawing massive salaries – the water companies have failed to invest in new infrastructure or, indeed, manage existing infrastructure adequately, which has led to the totally unacceptable dumping of raw sewage in our waterways on myriad occasions."

Recently, the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Thérèse Coffey stated that 'cleaning up water was her personal mission' but research by the Environment Agency revealed that across the UK, sewage was released into waterways on more than 400,000 occasions in 2020 alone. 

This equated to wastewater overflow lasting for more than three million hours.

Data sourced from the River Trust revealed the true reality of sewage entering Salisbury's river systems in 2022. 

At Barford St Martin, overflows occurred 10 times equating to more than 38 hours of sewage going into the River Nadder. 

Salisbury Journal: Image NewsquestImage Newsquest (Image: Newsquest)

At the Downton Sewage Treatment Works, the sewer storm overflowed 26 times and sewage was released for more than 281 hours into the River Avon. 

Salisbury Journal: Image NewsquestImage Newsquest (Image: Newsquest)

At Hanging Langford, the sewer storm overflowed 188 times equating to more than 290 hours. Sewage was discharged into the River Wylye via a reed bed. 

Salisbury Journal: Image NewsquestImage Newsquest (Image: Annette J Beveridge, Newsquest)

At Hurdcott Wastewater Treatment Works, 149 spills equated to sewage flowing into the River Bourne for more than 2,346 hours. 

Salisbury Journal: Image NewsquestImage Newsquest (Image: Annette J Beveridge, Newsquest)

At Petersfinger sewer storm overflow spilled 4 times pumping sewage into the River Avon for more than 31 hours. 

Salisbury Journal: Image NewsquestImage Newsquest (Image: Annette J Beveridge, Newsquest)

Human sewage contains bacteria and viruses, which can have health consequences such as skin and stomach infections, sore throats, chest infections and even Hepatitis A if people come into contact with it.

However, a Wessex Water spokesperson told the Journal that the company was committed to tackling the problem of storm overflows - and that they would be investing up to £9m in a solution. 

They said: “We’re committed to eliminating untreated sewage discharges and, if approved by our regulators, we’ll be tripling investment from £3m per month to £9m to tackle storm overflows and minimise any environmental impact.

“Licensed by the Environment Agency (EA), storm overflows operate automatically during or after heavy rainfall to protect properties from flooding. More than 90 per cent of them in the Wessex Water region are monitored, and every overflow will be monitored by the end of this year."

The government has introduced a target to reduce the amount of sewage coming from storm overflows and this will be enshrined in law and will, according to the government, be a £56bn investment.

By the end of 2023, all storm overflows will be fitted with monitors and 80 per cent of phosphorus pollution from sewage treatment plants is to be improved by 2038, but phosphorous pollution is detrimental to wildlife, killing fish which in turn, impacts other species. 

Unlimited financial penalties have already been imposed by the government upon the various water companies that have broken the rules but have simply paid the fine.  

Salisbury Journal: Image: Annette J BeveridgeImage: Annette J Beveridge (Image: Annette J Beveridge Newsquest)

Salisbury MP John Glen said that high standards were expected and he underlined how important the issue was.

He said: "Obviously, a clean water supply and the way that we deal with our waste is critically important.

"The government has put out some critically strong signals to the industry recently and some pretty hard targets for them to meet and sanctions with pretty significant fines where they are not making those investments to deal with those leakages.

"You won't expect these things to be solved overnight but we've got to continue to be very, very clear that high standards are expected in our water supply. 

"Water companies are responsible for making those investments but we have increased the obligations on them to have higher standards of water quality and higher levels of capital investment and clear penalties where they don't make them."  

Analysis of official Environment Agency data recently revealed an additional cause for concern - that of 'forever chemicals' which form a chemical cocktail of pollution in rivers and in other freshwater sites. 

Up to 101 chemicals were identified in river samples across England including in the River Avon which is an integral part of the Salisbury landscape. These included PFOS , PFOA, PFBS, PFHXS and 2,4-D, which can also have severe health consequences on people. 

The map below shows chemical mixtures at groundwater sampling sites. 

Salisbury Journal: Image Victoria Jones/PA WireImage Victoria Jones/PA Wire (Image: Rivers Trust) 

The director of policy and science at the Rivers Trust Rob Collins said: “We need to stop pumping poison into our rivers. Hazardous chemicals are flowing into our waters, derived from every aspect of our lives.

"On the small scale from the toiletries, food packaging, clothing and other goods we use individually, to large-scale industrial, medical and food production, we are creating an ever-growing chemical cocktail in our rivers."

Five chemical cocktails known to be toxic with adverse effects on wildlife have been found in 814 river and lake sites (from 1,006 sites) and 805 groundwater sites (from 1,086 sites with data) across England. 

Senior project manager at Fidra, Dr Clare Cavers, said: “We are heading for a perfect storm of chemical pollution, with regulations that deal with chemicals one by one without enough consideration of how they interact with each other. 

"Unseen and stealthy, chemicals from our everyday lives are building up around us, to toxic levels. As largely invisible pollutants, we usually only see their impacts on our wildlife and ourselves, and by then it’s too late.

"The presence in these chemical cocktails of 4 PFAS is deeply alarming, highlighting the urgent need for them to be restricted, and for tougher chemical controls more widely to curb the chemical cocktail in our waters.”

Chemical run-off from farmland is often cited as another serious cause of river pollution. 

Salisbury Journal: Image: Annette J BeveridgeImage: Annette J Beveridge (Image: Annette J Beveridge)

Former national farmland biodiversity advisor for the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, Peter Thompson said: "Farmers tend to take a lot of the blame but a huge amount has been done to prevent run-off.

"Nitrate is more difficult because it percolates down and eventually comes out in springs and things like that but as far as things like pesticides, most farms now have buffers next to water courses and spray application is getting very accurate." 

Peter added: "I do think we need to look at our sewage systems because a lot of pollution is coming from them. I think that government can do more on that front."