Bathe, beware: Britain’s beaches and rivers have a sewage problem. He entered the election talks

HENLEY-ON-TAMES, England (AP) – Endurance swimmer Joan Fennelly is undaunted by cold water and long distances, swimming year-round outdoors. But she takes extra precautions in her own backyard. The River Thames is one of Britain’s many waterways polluted by sewage and agricultural pollution.

“If it looks good, if it smells good, I’ll go in,” Fennelly said.

Britain has become known as a country where a casual swim can lead to an extended visit to the toilet, if not hospital. A flood of dirty water news has poured into next month’s election to determine which party controls the government for the next four or five years.

While not a major campaign issue, it smacks of a bigger problem: Britain’s aging infrastructure – from aging schools, hospitals and prisons to pothole-riddled roads.

The bad water is decades in the making, linked to the privatization of waterworks under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1989 and the fiscal austerity measures following the 2008 financial crisis that slashed budgets for rangers and others.

The British public discovered the extent of the mess during the COVID-19 pandemic as outdoor pastimes such as rowing and wild swimming took off. The sight and smell of faeces, toilet paper and other litter in streams and beaches led to an outcry, along with clean water campaigns by several London newspapers.

“We are suffering with shockingly poor infrastructure as a result of long-term under-investment by water companies who seemed more interested in paying shareholders dividends,” said Nick Kirsop-Taylor, a lecturer in environmental policy at the University of Exeter. . “There’s a lot more to it than just that, though … it’s the culture of lax regulation.”

Britain had such an anti-environmental regulatory culture that it was known as the “dirty man of Europe” in the 1970s and 1980s, Kirsop-Taylor said. That changed when he joined the European Union, but he said there has been backlash since his 2016 vote to leave the EU.

As private companies have run regional monopolies providing combined water and sewer services, the population has grown and industrial demand for the system has increased. Plumbing – dating back to the Victorian era in many places – has not been updated to meet the needs.

In addition, climate change has brought more rainfall into overburdened sewers.

“Water companies have a choice: either they allow sewage to back up into people’s homes or they open the pipes and it flows into nature,” said Charles Watson, founder and chairman of River Action, founded in 2021. “This is the reason our rivers are full of human excrement.”

The number of untreated sewage discharges rose by more than 50% last year from the previous year to a record 464,000 discharges. The cumulative duration of spills doubled to 3.6 million hours, according to the Environment Agency, one of the two water regulators.

The increase was mainly due to a wetter year and because monitors are now installed in most sewage pipes, according to Water UK, a trade group for water companies. But there is no similar monitoring for farm runoff such as manure, an even bigger problem than sewage.

While sewage discharges are legal during rainy periods, their frequency has drawn attention and led to criticism that the industry’s financial regulator, Ofwat, has not done enough to ensure infrastructure is updated.

Water companies accuse Ofwat of not allowing them to raise rates enough to fund the improvements. Ofwat would not comment on specific criticism because of the pending election, but noted that companies had spent their budgets on improvements by 25% since 2020.

Water companies have felt the pressure. Water UK apologized last year for the sewage release, with CEO David Henderson saying the industry should have woken up sooner.

“We recognize that the current levels of sewage discharges are unacceptable and we have a plan to resolve it,” Water UK said in a statement to The Associated Press. “Companies want to invest more than £10 billion ($12.7 billion) to reduce emissions by 40% by the end of this decade. Now we need Ofwat to give us the green light so we can go ahead with it.”

Activists accuse the companies of paying dividends to shareholders while carrying huge debts. Watson with River Action said the industry paid out 11 million pounds ($14 million) last year for environmental violations, such as dumping sewage, while paying out more than 100 times that in dividends – 1.4 billion pounds ($1.8 billion dollars).

“That’s not a setback,” Watson said. “This is an incentive to pollute.”

A bipartisan committee in the House of Lords last year found the two regulators needed to go further in fining and prosecuting polluters and needed more government funding. The number of Environment Agency prosecutions has fallen significantly over the years, from 787 cases in 2007-2008 to 17 in 2020-21.

The Industry and Regulators Committee also said Ofwat had prioritized lower water bills for customers over infrastructure improvements.

Political parties are exploiting the crisis with harsh words. Labor leader Keir Starmer has accused the Conservative government of “turning Britain’s waterways into an open sewer”.

But neither the Conservatives nor the centre-left Labor have offered a detailed plan. Like most other parties, they have not promised to increase funding for the regulator.

The leader of the center Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey, has made the biggest splash of the campaigndiving for the cameras.

“The Conservatives have allowed water companies to pump their dirty water into our rivers, into our lakes, onto our beaches and into our sea,” Davey said as he announced a detailed plan that includes replacing Ofwat with a new regulator tougher.

of The Green Partywhich struggles in a political system that makes it difficult for small parties to win seats in Parliament, has even suggested that water services be nationalized again.

Some communities agree. The town council in Henley-on-Thames, a Tory stronghold in west London, this month passed a vote of no confidence in Thames Water, which is on the brink of bankruptcy and called for its water provider to be nationalised.

The town is the site of the Henley Royal Regatta which attracts 50,000 people a day for rowing races in July. But the dirty water has tarnished his image. The town center is downstream of a Thames Water sewage treatment plant, which the company says it plans to upgrade by the end of 2026.

“I wouldn’t swim that stretch for love or money,” said endurance swimmer Fennelly, who suspects she got a nasty E. coli infection sometime there.

She and other members of the Henley Mermaids, a group of wild swimmers, now consult the Thames Water phone app that shows sewage releases. They also do the sniff test before jumping in.

On a recent morning, Fennelly and Jo Robb walked across a meadow, strapped flotation devices around their waists and waded into the Thames. The current was strong from the rain the night before.

Robb yelled as she hit the river, not because it was dirty, but because of the cold. It was refreshing – the way water should be.

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