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Citizen science data shows that 60% of the inland bathing sites we monitored didn’t meet minimum safety requirements for water users in England.

How is sewage managed in England?

Water policy in England has been changing rapidly over the last few years as a result of dedicated campaigning.

The bulk of the policy is contained within the UK government’s ‘Plan for Water’ and ‘Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan’ which set out the actions government, regulators and industry will take to tackle sewage pollution.

There are nine wastewater companies in England that are responsible for the majority of the country’s wastewater and sewage. These are all private companies owned by shareholders. They are all regulated by the Environment Agency (the environmental regulator) and Ofwat (the financial regulator).

River health


Inland waters throughout the UK are dying. Only 14% of rivers in England meet good ecological status, and none meet good chemical status.

This is owing to a variety of factors, including the widespread and persistent discharging of treated and untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial activity.

Sewage pollution forced Steve to abruptly shut his Surf School this summer. Click the image above to hear how poor water quality is impacting businesses and livelihoods in Scarborough.

Our rivers are in a dire state

Of the 86% of inland water bodies which fail to meet targets in England, 36% have been identified as failing directly as a result of sewage and wastewater discharges9. This matters not just for the health of our rivers and lakes but also for the ocean and the coastal surf and swim spots we love so much. Ultimately what goes into our rivers goes into our ocean.

Water quality monitoring in the UK is shockingly sparse, but this data is crucial for understanding water quality and ecological health. The most recent round of water quality assessments in England were undertaken four years ago in 2019 by the Environment Agency (EA) as part of the Water Framework Directive.

Prior to that, the last assessment was undertaken in 2016. And now we know the next round of water quality assessments will not be undertaken until 202510. Over the course of a decade, the health of most English rivers will only be checked three times.

What testing we do have only provides a ‘snapshot’ view of how a waterway looked at one point. This doesn’t account for their dynamic nature and decreases the probability of detecting pollution. As a result, our knowledge of the health of UK waters is, on the whole, outdated and inaccurate.

Our citizen science data shows 60% of the bathing sites we monitored didn’t meet minimum safety requirements for water users in England.

In specific sites with Designated Bathing Water status, water quality is tested on a more frequent basis due to legal recognition that they are popular bathing sites. At these sites, the EA tests weekly for bacterial indicators of sewage. But, there are currently only three sites on UK rivers and these sites are only monitored from May – September (the official bathing season in England). So yet again what monitoring we do, still fails to provide a clear picture of the state of our rivers and the potential impact on human health.

What is citizen science?

Citizen science is the collection of data, by non-scientists to achieve a common goal.

In our case, our citizen scientists are community members who want to understand more about the presence of sewage in their local waters.

Citizen science

Water quality testing

How does it work?

On a weekly basis, citizen scientists test for two main types of bacteria: Escherichia coli (E. coli), and intestinal Enterococci.

These are known as faecal indicator organisms (FIOs), so-called due to their common presence in the intestinal tracts of mammals (i.e. humans).

Because they thrive in the human gut, they are often found in untreated sewage.

This, in combination with the ease with which they can be grown in a laboratory environment, means that they are easily detectable and a convenient marker for untreated sewage.

The sampling process:

What did we find?

Our community of citizen scientists have collected data over an 18-week period (May – Sept 2023).This data has been collated and used to replicate Bathing Water Classifications.

Designated bathing sites are given one of the four following classifications:

These classifications use the EA statistical technique to categorise each sampling location into either Excellent, Good, Moderate, or Poor, depending on the levels of E. coli and Enterococci in the samples.

The statistical technique looks at the average values over the season, as well as how much the values change over time, to determine the probability of the location being hazardous for water-users’ health.

Figure 7
English rivers that were tested in the SAS Citizen Science Programme.

The results

The majority of testing sites showed poor water quality.

A total of 40 sites were investigated for our citizen science water quality testing programme.

This included 20 locations throughout the UK where communities were applying for Designated Bathing Water status, and a further 20 sites upstream of a nearby sewage overflow (to find out if sewage discharges are causing a decrease in quality).

Of the 40 sites, we found that 24 sites received a Poor bathing water classification, five sites received a Sufficient classification, four sites received a Good classification and just seven sites received an Excellent classification.

60% of sites we tested

did not meet the minimum standard

for safety required for water users.

Figure 8
Bathing water classifications from 40 sites investigated by the SAS Citizen Science water quality testing programme.

These sites were found to have such high levels of bacteria present that the EA would classify them as being unsafe for human recreational use. If these sites were officially designated bathing areas the EA would be required to open a formal investigation into the source of the pollution.

One iconic river which tragically received poor water quality was the River Dart in south Devon. Of the 6 sampling locations on the River Dart, 4 locations received a ‘Poor’ water quality classification for the 2023 bathing season, and many of the weekly samples taken at these 4 sites consistently showed dangerously high levels of FIOs such as E. coli and Enterococci.

This means that this ecologically and culturally important river which is so popular with water users, and is host to many events including the annual Dart 10k swim race and the Dartmouth Royal Regatta, would fail to meet safe bathing standards in these 4 sites.

The data presented here was collected by one of our fantastic communities who are campaigning on the River Dart to achieve Designated Bathing Water Status as part of our Protecting Wild Waters programme.

All of our testing sites are well used for dipping, swimming and watersports, yet without intervention from Protecting Wild Waters communities, they would remain completely untested throughout the year. And unknowingly, the local water users may be swimming in dangerously contaminated water on a regular basis. Don’t they have the right to be informed of dangers to their health?

Hannah is one of the founding directors of Friends of the Dart. She tells us how their campaigning is helping to keep water users on the River Dart informed on water quality.

Impact of Sewage overflows

Of the 20 different locations across the UK, four bathing sites showed a clear decrease in water quality from locations upstream to downstream of a sewage overflow.

Hannah was one of the many swimmers who fell sick after this year’s Thames Marathon. Find out more about how getting sick has impacted her relationship with wild swimming.

All of these sampling locations have sewage overflows in between them, all of which discharged untreated sewage last year. Whilst there is currently a lack of available real-time data relating to the discharge of untreated sewage, last year’s discharge data suggests that these locations are affected by the regular use of sewage overflows. The image below shows an example of the upstream and downstream testing points, with the sewer overflows between highlighted in yellow.

Figure 9
Locations where water quality changes between sampling locations and the Sewer Overflows between the testing sites.

Why aren’t we seeing more?

The citizen science program is replicating the EAs water quality testing regime, which only samples on a weekly basis.

With more frequent sampling, we would increase the likelihood of testing directly after a sewage discharge, which would likely decrease water quality. What our results indicate is that at least four of our locations are directly impacted by sewage discharges – we cannot say that the other 16 are not. By limiting ourselves to weekly testing, we could be missing bouts of bad water quality. The more frequent testing a location receives, the more accurate picture we have. We know that sewage pollution will move downstream quickly in heavy-flowing water. But ultimately all rivers lead to the ocean – taking the pollution down to the coast as it goes.

What we need to happen

We need an enhanced, world-leading testing regime all year round which gives a true picture of the UK’s water quality.

To help us achieve a greater amount of water quality testing across the UK we’re campaigning for the introduction of 200 designated inland bathing waters by 2030, leveraging the legislation that’s already in place to track and improve water quality at local inland sites, so we can start improving the health of our rivers and lakes – which are currently in disastrously poor condition.

As part of our End Sewage Pollution Manifesto, we are calling for the incoming government to prioritise high-risk pollution and take immediate, targeted action to tackle the highest-risk pollution events, which include those impacting on designated bathing sites and other popular water user sites.

What needs to happen?

Reveal the truth

We need UK wide transparency about sewage pollution.

  • Accurate and accessible real-time water quality information year-round
  • A transparent bathing water application process
  • Water quality testing that shows the full picture
  • Transparency across the sewage system

Take immediate targeted action to tackle the highest risk pollution events.

  • End untreated discharges affecting bathing waters and popular water usage areas by 2030
  • End untreated discharges affecting high priority nature sites by 2030
Wild swimmers and water users in England

Prioritise high risk pollution

What needs to happen?

We are calling on this and the next government to;

Reveal the truth

We need UK wide transparency about sewage pollution.

  • Accurate and accessible real-time water quality information year-round
  • A transparent bathing water application process
  • Water quality testing that shows the full picture
  • Transparency across the sewage system

Prioritise high risk pollution

Take immediate targeted action to tackle the highest risk pollution events.

  • End untreated discharges affecting bathing waters and popular water usage areas by 2030
  • End untreated discharges affecting high priority nature sites by 2030


Dirty money

In last year’s Water Quality Report, we revealed a staggering £965 million was paid out of water companies in dividends and £16.5 million was handed over to water company CEOs for a “good job well done” in 2021 despite failing environmentally and letting down their customers.

In March 2023 we launched the Dirty Money petition to bring the public together to stand up against these profiteering actions of water companies, and demand that they put the environment before profit.

173,000 people across the UK signed in support of our calls to: tie the payment of dividends to compliance with environmental regulations, see a cap on CEO bonuses and see more transparency in water company finances.

With the UK public rising up in force, we have started to make a difference to how this is regulated.

Ofwat, the economic regulator of water companies in England and Wales, have announced plans to change regulations to make sure water company executives’ bonus won’t be paid out of customer money. They also announced plans to link shareholder payouts to environmental performance.

These announcements are warmly welcome, but they have plenty of loopholes and still allow water companies to take money out of the system to line the pockets of investors and CEOs even if the company’s performance is going backwards, or they are breaking their permit requirements.

Empty gestures

and filled pockets

Water companies also quickly responded to this public outcry with promises of better dividend policies and forgoed bonuses, but has anything really changed?

Some water companies seem to have genuinely listened to their customers, with CEOs taking a drop in overall pay and dividends reduced. But out of the 5 water companies that gave up their CEO bonuses, 2 CEOs walked away with higher overall pay than last year. (Figure 11).

We’re not fooled by their PR stunts, this year England’s water company CEOs still cumulatively took away nearly £11 million, whilst discharging raw sewage over 300,000 times last year. We need lasting and enforceable legislation changes, and that’s why we’re working to influence Ofwat, on how they can use their powers to finally reign in water company self-regulation, and start holding these companies to account.

Figure 11
CEO take-home pay for the years ending March 2022 and March 2023.

Another billion

Leaves the bank

Despite Ofwat creating new regulations to prevent dividends being paid on poor environmental performance, another £1.4 billion has been funnelled out of England’s water companies (Figure 12).

These millions of pounds that water companies see fit to dole out, go to a mix of external investors and parent companies – where the trail of money gets even more murky.

This year a minority of water companies have attempted to explain their corporate structure (for example Severn Trent and Southern Water, but for the most part, understanding where the money goes is a difficult task which is still not transparent to the public (see Figure 13 for each water company’s parent and owner).

Figure 12
Water company dividends paid year ending March 2023 (£ millions).

Figure 13
Water company parent companies and owners.

Water Company Owners Parent company
Anglian Water

Osprey Consortium (led by 3i and Canadian
and Australian pension funds)

AWG plc

Northumbrian Water

CK Infrastructure Holdings (based in Hong Kong)

Northumbrian Water Group plc

Severn Trent

Range of shareholders including Black Rock (American multinational investment company based in New York City)

Severn Trent PLC

Southern Water

Macquarie Asset Management

Greensands Holdings

South West Water

Range of investors including Black Rock (an American multinational investment company based in New York City)

Thames Water

German Utility giant RWE

Thames Water Holdings Plc

United Utilities

Range of investors including Black Rock (an American multinational investment company based in New York City)

United Utilities Group

Wessex Water

Malaysian power company YTL Corporation

Yorkshire Water

Saltaire Water (based in UK)

Kelda Group

Where does the money really go?

What we do know is, ultimately the privatised English sewage system is being rinsed for cash, which ends up in the hands of companies based across the world from Germany and Canada to Malaysia and Australia.

Only one of nine companies are majority owned by UK based investors. Do these parent companies have the UK public and environment at heart? The gross and negligent under-investment of sewage infrastructure since privatisation suggests not.

Figure 14
Primary countries water companies’ shareholders are based.

What needs to happen?

We are calling on this and the next government to;

Stop pollution for profit

Water companies’ first responsibility must be to the environment, not their shareholders and executives.

  • Cap CEO bonuses
  • Make dividends dependent on environmental performance

Get involved!

When: Tuesday 21 Nov | 11am-2pm
Where: Plymouth Centre, Cornwall St, Outside M&S (see map)

Every year, the Surfers Against Sewage Water Quality Report sums up the state of our Beaches and Rivers. For England we will mark the launch of the report this year with a presence of protest and information in Plymouth, home to Tinside beach which is the 4th most polluted bathing site in England. We demand an end to sewage pollution and an end to profiting from pollution.

Contact: [email protected] or connect on Facebook here.

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