Revealed: How sewage was poured into Norfolk's rivers 4,000 times last year

River Wensum Norwich

The River Wensum in Norwich had the most sewage spills. - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

Sewage was pumped into the region’s rivers, Broads and coastline more than 4,000 times last year - the equivalent of more than 10 times every day - with every waterway in Norfolk failing to pass environmental standards. 

The figures come as a political row continues over the number of times water companies were discharging waste into rivers. 

Environment Agency data, mapped by charity the Rivers Trust, shows Anglian Water used sewers in Norfolk and north Suffolk to pump water - which includes human waste, run-off from land and rainwater - into waterways for a total of 33,000 hours in 2020. That is the equivalent of almost five years. 

Our analysis has also found the Wensum in Norwich - a river which is meant to be protected as it is a rare chalk stream - had the most sewage spills.

Waste water is also being pumped near popular wild swimming spots.

Water companies are allowed to pump waste into rivers, lakes and the sea during heavy rainfall. This stops drains backing up and homes being flooded by sewage, but the scale at which it is happening has sparked anger.

Norfolk artist Tor Falcon, who visited and drew every river in the county for her book Rivers of Norfolk, said: "It was a sad thing to see the terrible state of our rivers.

"Wild swimmers tell me how they loved my book but I would never get in any river in Norfolk. You don't see what is upstream."

Most Read

Some of the spills were near the county’s most popular swimming spots.

On the Bure between Coltishall and Wroxham a sewer spilled 28 times for a total of 327 hours in 2020. At West Runton the sewer spilled 30 times in last year for a total of 70 hours. 

Explore the magic rockpools at West Runton beach Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

West Runton beach - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Meanwhile in Hunstanton the sewer overflowed 40 times for a total of 56 hours. 

However, there was better news in Cromer where the number of spills was slashed compared to 2019.

An Anglian Water spokesperson said: “The water industry shares the ambitions of our customers, and their expectation that our rivers should be beautiful places, rich in nature. That’s why we’ve already set out a framework for a comprehensive national plan to achieve that.

“In it, we call on government and regulators to authorise new investment, and for a much stronger effort on tackling the causes of sewers overloading, like blockages from wet wipes and poorly-designed housing developments."

They also pointed out that agriculture was the biggest source of rivers failing to achieve good water quality. This is backed up by data from the Environment Agency. 

Fertiliser sprayed on fields leads to nutrients running off into waterways when it rains which pollutes the water. 

But Rob Wise, environment adviser for NFU East Anglia, said farmers were taking action to minimise run off, including putting up barriers, reducing fertiliser use and improving crop rotation.

“All farmers are making efforts,” he said. “It is in their own business interests to keep nutrients in the fields.”

Rob Wise, regional environment adviser for NFU East Anglia

Rob Wise, regional environment adviser for NFU East Anglia - Credit: NFU

He said there had been a big shift to using cover crops, which act as a green manure. They are planted on fields and then ploughed into the soil, reducing the need for fertilisers. 

Not one clean river

In the Anglian region 22 waterways have the lowest ecological status of “bad” with 105 rated poor and 428 moderate. Just 47 are good and none given the top rating of “high". It means environmental targets for water quality are a long way from being reached.

Six years ago, in 2015, the target was for 30 waterways to be rated poor and none by 2021 - currently 105 are poor.

By another measure of chemicals in the surface water, all waterways should have passed by 2015 but six years later, none have.

When asked why water quality was so far from targets, an Environment Agency spokesman said: “The growing pressures of climate change and population growth means that, with the current levels of investment from everyone who uses water, we are running to stand still on improvements." 

Some of the most polluted waterways in Norfolk were The Mun, Ranworth Broad, Barton Broad, the Chet, Rollesby Broad and Ormesby Broad. 

The Norfolk Wildlife Trust owns Ranworth Broad is currently undertaking a restoration project called Tipping the Balance to restore water quality.

Its chief executive, Eliot Lyne, said: "We, like other conservation organisations across the country are concerned at the ecological status of our water bodies, rivers and wetlands and these water bodies are affected by water pollution including agricultural run off, the growth in recreational use and raw sewage, particularly at times of heavy rainfall.

Eliot Lyne, chief executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust

Eliot Lyne, chief executive of Norfolk Wildlife Trust - Credit: Danielle Booden

"With habitats and wildlife at risk, it is imperative that we continue to work together – conservation charities, water companies and landowners alike – to restore the “gin clear” water quality we once had" 

He added that water quality mirrored that found upstream and in the catchment area.

Anglian Water recorded 210 pollution incidents in 2020, a figure which has fallen compared to ten years ago but not in the last five years, despite the company's investments. 

The political row

Last week, MPs rejected section 141A of Lords amendment 45 to the government’s environment bill, which would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to discharge waste into rivers and oceans.

Local MPs Peter Aldous, of Waveney, Duncan Baker, of North Norfolk, Jerome Mayhew, of Broadland, Chloe Smith, of Norwich North, and James Wild, of North West Norfolk, were among the 265 Conservative MPs who successfully voted in favour of rejecting section 141A. 

After an outcry, most of those MPs released statements defending their decision, arguing that section 141A would have been unfeasible to put into practice in its current form. 

However, there was later a partial government u-turn with some concessions made. 

North Norfolk MP Duncan Baker said this week: "We all wanted to absolutely clean up our water companies and work to eliminate storm overflows.

Duncan Baker, Conservative candidate in North Norfolk. Picture: SUPPLIED BY THE CANDIDATE

Duncan Baker, Conservative candidate in North Norfolk. Picture: SUPPLIED BY THE CANDIDATE - Credit: Archant

“I expect to now be able to vote through further strengthened provisions in the environment bill, which place a new legal duty directly on water companies to progressively reduce the adverse impacts of storm overflow discharges, and provide enforcement of the duty by the secretary of state, or OFWAT [the Water Services Regulation Authority]."

-Get more in-depth articles with our investigations unit newsletter

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter