Storm Overflows and Beach Quality

Apologies for the considerable amount of information below! Also Please find attached multiple documents including a Press Release on the Beach Water Quality results announced on the 30th of November 2022.

Matters like this are complicated and cannot always be explained by bullet points or memes although South West Water do have a simple video that explains what effect the rain has on our beaches and how Storm Overflow Discharges are triggered: Rain stops play? How wet weather can affect our waters - YouTube 

The Environment Agency have also produced some information on ow they monitor water quality and what a Pollution Risk Forecast is: Gearing up for a summer of swimming in our bathing waters - Creating a better place (

Storm Overflows Plan
    •    Published on 26 August. This sets out the specific and time bound targets water companies need to achieve.
    •    This Plan did not change the law: what was illegal before the publication of the Plan remained illegal.
    •    What the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan does is to set out the largest investment programme ever undertaken by water companies. This will address sewage discharges from storm overflows.
    •    Published on 26 August. This sets out the specific and time bound targets water companies need to achieve.
    •    This Plan did not change the law: what was illegal before the publication of the Plan remained illegal.
    •    What the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan does is to set out the largest investment programme ever undertaken by water companies. This will address sewage discharges from storm overflows.

Duke of Wellington amendment:*
    •    During the passage of the Environment Act through parliament, the Duke of Wellington proposed an amendment to ensure water companies take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows.
    •    It was not clear what would constitute a reasonable step, how far companies would need to go to achieve it, or what impact this would have on consumer bills.
    •    Government passed an alternative amendment, which requires water companies to achieve progressive reductions in the harm caused by storm overflows
    •    Neither the Duke of Wellington amendment, nor the duty passed by government is specific on what needs to be achieved / be when – that level of detail is set out in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan

I hope this and with more clarity below goes some way to explaining why we are doing so much more now, in addition to what has been done over the last decade to address water quality and to address the misconception that our water quality is worse than it ever has been.


Environment update - Statement made on 25 April 2023

This government has been clear that sewage discharging into our rivers is completely unacceptable. In August 2022 this government published the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, with an accompanying impact assessment. It’s a plan that sets stringent targets to protect people and the environment. This will require water companies to deliver the largest infrastructure programme in water company history, totalling an estimated £56 billion.

Today, we are announcing plans to enshrine the plan further in law. Through the Environment Act 2021, we will legislate for a clear target on storm overflow reduction in line with our Plan. A clear, credible and costed legally binding target will add to our transparent and determined approach to solve this issue, whilst keeping consumer bills low. This will also be backed by existing separate interim targets for bathing waters and our most precious habitats. This will build on the direction we placed on water companies to introduce monitoring in 2013, which will reach 100% by the end of this year. We will also deliver our commitment to further reform penalties to make them easier to apply, including proposing an unlimited penalty. We have also demanded that water companies provide action plans on every storm overflow by the summer.

View Written Ministerial Statement 

Storm Overflow Discharges

I know everyone has been concerned about the number of storm discharges and the effect it has on our water quality, particularly our beaches. 

There has been a spectacular amount of disinformation and hysteria spread on the internet. Yes, storm discharges happen, we do not want to see them, but storm discharges are not new, we have had them for 150 years, they only appear to be happening a lot more because we have only just started properly monitoring them.

Since 2013, we have significantly increased transparency around storm overflows, with 100% monitoring coverage expected by the end of 2023. Additionally, the Environment Act requires data about spills to be published in near real time, which will allow government, regulators and the public to monitor performance and water companies must also implement monitoring of the environmental impact of their discharges.

One of the reasons that there are more reports of these discharges is that the government has required water companies to monitor more of their overflow pipes. In 2016 only 800 were monitored, by 2020 over 12,000 were monitored and water companies are obliged to monitor all 15000 by next year.  We know about more incidents because there are more monitors, and it is factually inaccurate to compare the number of discharges in 2016 to 2021. However, we know climate change and population growth mean the risk will increase – which is why the government has taken significant action.

After the very dry summer we have had it was inevitable that there would be a series of discharges following the recent rain. In some cases, it did not need to be torrential rain, as the ground was so dry it could not absorb the water fast enough. If you have seen the video, think about what was posted on social media showing the river that was Clovelly after some heavy rain. Then think about months of dirt, dust, grime, remnants of dog faeces and agricultural mess all being swept into our rivers and seas over those few days. We do not need a storm overflow discharge for our waters to become heavily polluted quite quickly.

There are many occasions when the pollution has nothing to do with the water coming from our drains or across our land. Algae blooms are a common phenomenon and attached below is a document to explain what to look for and how to recognise them.


Combined Sewage Systems

Combined sewage systems mean that rainwater from drains and sewage use the same pipes underground.  At times of high rainfall, the pipes reach capacity, and to stop sewage escaping into homes and streets, the system was designed to discharge to rivers or the sea via Combined Sewer Overflows.

A combined sewerage system does mean that most of the time, all of the dirty water flowing off fields, roads and off our rooves has a chance to be cleaned before hitting our rivers and seas. We do not want the storm discharges when the sewage system cannot cope, the alternative is that the same water would back up and spread through our homes and streets before making its way to the sea. Water will find its way to our rivers and the sea, be that what comes from the sky, what is flushed or what goes down our sink.


Privatisation and Investment and Monitoring

Since privatisation, the private water sector model has unlocked more than £150 billion of investment. This is equivalent to around £5 billion annually in investment and has delivered a range of benefits to customers and the environment.

Ofwat, the independent regulator, protects the interests of consumers by controlling prices, making sure water companies carry out their statutory functions and are financially resilient, as well as holding them to account on overall performance and the delivery of essential services.

The Government’s Strategic Policy Statement to Ofwat sets out long-term priorities for the sector, and how ministers expect the water companies to deliver for consumers and the environment. The Strategic Policy Statement sets an expectation that water companies will be challenged to demonstrate how they will deliver improvements to environmental outcomes, sets a new course so the industry can deliver more for the environment, and includes an expectation for Ofwat to challenge water companies to demonstrate how they will achieve zero serious pollution incidents by 2030.

The Strategic Policy Statement for Ofwat also sets an expectation on water companies to make progressive reductions in the adverse impacts from storm overflows, including reducing their frequency and volume. The landmark Environment Act has placed this ambition on a statutory footing, setting a duty for water companies to achieve a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of discharges from storm overflows.

I am assured that the Environment Agency has driven up its monitoring and is supporting local authorities where needed and I understand that between 2020 and 2025, water companies will invest £7.1 billion on environmental improvements in England. Of this, £3.1 billion will be invested in storm overflow improvements specifically.

In March 2022, the Government published the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan consultation. This sets out plans to revolutionise how water companies tackle the number of discharges of untreated sewage. Water companies will face strict limits on when they can use storm overflows and must completely eliminate the harm any sewage discharge causes to the environment. I am aware that this will be the largest programme of work to tackle storm sewage discharges in history.


Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan - announced on 26th August 2022

Water companies will face the strictest targets on pollution from sewage ever under a new plan to tackle sewage discharges in our waters, set out by government today.

The government’s plan will require them to deliver their largest ever environmental infrastructure investment - £56 billion capital investment over 25 years - into a long term programme to tackle storm sewage discharges by 2050. The plan frontloads action in particularly important and sensitive areas including designated bathing waters and high priority ecological sites.

The plan will be reviewed in 2027 to consider where the programme can be accelerated, taking account of innovation and efficiencies and how the programme is impacting bills. Under this plan there will be no changes to bills until 2025.

This plan builds on £3.1 billion investment from water companies to improve storm overflows between 2020 and 2025

A raft of measures have also been brought forward in the Environment Act to tackle sewage discharges, including the requirement for greater transparency from water companies on their storm overflow data. 

There have been 54 prosecutions against water companies since 2015, securing fines of nearly £140 million.

I have attached to this page the full 54 page plan and the DEFRA factsheet accompanying it.


The Environment Act and that Vote

I did not vote to allow sewage to be pumped into our rivers. No one did – in fact MPs voted to increase the restrictions of water companies using overflows.  During the passage of the Environment Act through parliament, the Duke of Wellington proposed an amendment to immediately stop the use of sewage overflows. 

Not only is this practically infeasible without flooding people’s homes with sewage, he had not considered the cost to consumers – independent evidence commissioned by the Storm Overflows Taskforce estimated total elimination of overflows could cost up to £600bn.  The government agreed an alternative approach, mandating progressive reductions in discharges and agreeing targets that the water companies must achieve, which will be set out in the final plan, which prioritises dealing with the environmental and public health impacts first while also balancing this with the cost to consumers.

We have had storm overflows in this country for at least 150 years.  This is the first government that is taking action to fix the problem.  We have already laid the foundations for that with new powers and new responsibilities in the Environment Act last year. We are not letting water companies get away with this and have been repeatedly clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable and they must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority. Our regulators have also launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage discharges.


January 2023 Environmental Targets

The Conservatives voted in favour of five legally binding targets to improve our environment. Those targets are: 

• Halt the decline in species populations by 2030, and then increase populations by at least 10% to exceed current levels by 2042

• Restore precious water bodies to their natural state by cracking down on harmful pollution from sewers and abandoned mines and improving water usage in households

• Deliver our net zero ambitions and boost nature recovery by increasing tree and woodland cover to 16.5% of total land area in England by 2050

• Cut exposure to the most harmful air pollutant to human health – PM2.5

• Halve the waste per person that is sent to residual treatment by 2042.

You can find more information at…

The Condition of our Beaches

With all the negativity in the press and on social media, it being peddled by political actors that benefit from bad news, you would think that our beaches are the worst they have ever been. This is completely false.

For the first time this year, in 2022, 100% of the classified bathing waters in the South West have passed their stringent standards, with 98% rated as or ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’, compared to c.28% in 1991. These are the tighter standards introduced by Government under the 2006 EU directive, which came into effect in 2015. We do not have the worst waters in Europe as many people may claim: See below picture with water quality ratings for many European Countries and historical bathing water classifications: 

Bathing water Trend




The Condition of our Rivers

Almost 80% of individual tests across all water bodies meet the threshold for Good Ecological Status (GES), but a water body must achieve the required standard for GES for every underlying assessment in order to achieve GES overall. Failure of one individual test means that overall the water body will fail to reach GES. This concept is known as ‘one-out-all-out' (which is why only 16% of surface water bodies in England currently meet good ecological status).

We have delivered an 80% reduction in phosphorus concentrations since 1990. Levels of ammonia, which is toxic to aquatic life including fish, have reduced to just 15% of their levels in 1990. Iconic species, such as seahorses, seals and salmon, are returning to our rivers and estuaries. Salmon have returned to the River Donn for the first time in 200 years.

Our bathing waters have been steadily improving over time, with 93% of the bathing waters in England at ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ in the latest classifications. Those bathing waters meeting the highest standard, ‘excellent’, has risen to 72%, the highest level since new standards were introduced in 2015.

The European Environment Agency’s data shows that that it will be very challenging for most EU Member States to achieve good ecological status for all water bodies in the time frame of the Water Framework Directive. England’s performance is comparable with equivalent Northern European countries on water quality, bathing water and urban wastewater treatment directive compliance.


Why have you pushed back the legal deadline to meet your water targets to 2063?

There have been inaccurate claims in the media that the target for good ecological status for rivers has been moved back to 2063. This is categorically not true.  We have not amended the Water Framework Directive (where this target comes from) in any way, as this is part of the process set out by the regulations.

The 2063 date comes from modelling undertaken by the Environment Agency for a specific group of three chemical pollutants. These three specific chemical pollutants are a type of Ubiquitous, Persistent, Bio cumulative, Toxic (uPBT) substances.

These chemicals are already banned, but modelling by the EA shows that it will take until 2063 for the legacy pollution to dissipate from the water environment. They were previously used all over the world in fire retardant, non-stick and water repellent commercial products. 97% of all surface water bodies in England would be at Good Chemical Status were it not for the presence of these substances.


The Saunton Issue Sunday 14th August

It is disappointing that having advertised that there was a pollution incident at Saunton the Environment Agency did not get a great deal of information out and as a result, it was immediately assumed that it was a storm overflow.

I put out the information as soon as possible and was accused of lying.

There was an incident over that weekend, the high tide did bring animal faeces into the water and the tides and winds brought it straight to Saunton. Many people have stated that they categorically saw human waste in the sea, it is quite possible that the same high tides brought other ‘presents’ from the shoreline to the sea as well.

The animal waste, combined with regular and predictable algal blooms were however the main pollutant

Animal waste however is significantly nastier, the equivalent quantity of sheep waste compared to human has 10 times the prevalence of E-Coli than human waste. In dog waste it is 20 times more prevalent and for Intestinal Enterococci dog waste, it is 300 times more in equivalence than human waste.

Attached to this page is a letter from the Environment Agency in answer to some of my questions. Please note, the Devon Live post quoted in the attached letter been removed for its inaccuracies.

I have also attached a presentation that was given to Come Martin Water Watch by South West Water, initially in 2016 but has been updated to January 2020.

It shows one of the most difficult and complicated water systems we have. Massive run off from agriculture into the River Umber and street water run off that can be inadvertently be held or redirected through old and now used ‘adits’ that were used by long closed silver mines.

It shows significantly more storm overflows from its monitors than actually happened but also that only 3% of the pollution detected was a result from actual overflows. The money spent on Combe Martin since 2012 has improved things and please do note page 11, I have asked for information like this for all our beaches, but this graph shows the actual improvement in the condition of this very difficult beach to keep clean.


St Agnes Video

The video of vast amounts of brown water pouring out from a pipe in Cornwall was disconcerting and disappointing. It resulted in an outbreak of online anger and in some case abuse to my colleague in Falmouth and indeed myself. South West Water, have investigated the incident and have published their report here:

Managing the impacts of climate change in the South West - Cornwall Live


The EU

We left the EU, but we maintained and brought into law the standards we have become accustomed to and through the Environment Act have made them better, stronger and more enforceable.


SAS Reports of Dry Discharges

South West Water Spokesperson: “We have been working hard to reduce the impact of storm overflows and in this year’s bathing season we have reduced spills by 50% on last year, with a 75% reduction in duration, across our 860 miles of coastline. However, we recognise there is more to do.

Our largest environmental investment programme in 15 years, WaterFit, is well underway, focused on delivering benefits for customers, communities and the environment. This year, for the first time, 100% of the classified bathing waters in the South West passed stringent standards, with 98% rated as or ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’, compared to c.28% in 1991 and we are delivering improvements to maintain and further improve our region’s excellent bathing water quality all year round.”


Water UK Industry Announcement - 18th May 2023

There have understandably been significant and growing concerns about the condition of our rivers and beaches over the last few months and I know this is an issue about which that Parliamentarians across the political spectrum care deeply.  

It is for this reason that I am writing today to draw your attention to a statement made by Water UK, the trade body representing the water and sewage industry.

We should have given this issue much more attention. We should have acted much faster to recognise the impact of sewage spills on people’s enjoyment of rivers and beaches, and put forward plans more quickly to deal with that. We have not shown the leadership that customers expect.

The industry has listened and heard, and today we say: we are sorry.   

We want to put things right. And while it will take time to overhaul 350,000 miles of sewers, we have today set out a plan to move this work forward. The people you represent are right to demand this gets sorted out, and we are taking action with:  

  • National Overflows Plan which confirms our readiness to invest an additional £10bn this decade, more than tripling (and adding to) current levels of investment of £3.1bn between 2020 and 2025. If approved by regulators, we expect that, by 2030, this initial wave of investment will cut sewage overflows by up to 140,000 each year, compared to the level in 2020.
  • An independently chaired National Environment Data Hub which will, for the first time in the world, provide open data, available to everyone, on the performance of all 15,000 sewage overflows in England. This will give any member of the public the ability to see in ‘near real time’ (within the hour) information on what is happening to any overflow in England, and thereby giving people a stronger ability to hold the industry to account.   
  • We will help the roll out of new river swimming areas by supporting up to 100 communities in drawing up plans, applying for legal protection, covering the costs of pre-submission water testing and working with regulators to fix local sources of pollution.

(please find attached document - South West & Bristol Water pdf for area specific announcements)



Therese Coffey


You can watch the Water for Life update from Defra here


Environmental Agency Consultation on Extending Civil Sanction Variable Monetary Penalty powers opens until on 8 October 2023: