Thames Water treatment works. Credit Will Durrant
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Thames Water released sewage into the River Lee and its tributaries 1,060 times in 2023

Environment Agency figures reveal wastewater from toilets, sinks and drains spilt out of storm overflows into the waterway for an equivalent 11,501.7 hours last year, almost doubling from the previous year.

Cross-party politicians have warned that the scale of sewage dumping in the River Lee, a rare chalk stream, is ‘an outrage.’

A Thames Water spokesperson said untreated discharges are ‘unacceptable’ and added the firm is ‘committed to stopping them from being necessary’.

Companies use spill from storm overflows when sewage treatment works cannot cope with the amount of wastewater and rainwater entering their treatment works, during periods of heavy rainfall.

Discharges without wet weather, or ‘dry spills’, are banned because rainwater has not diluted the sewage and household chemicals in wastewater pipes.

Luton, Harpenden, Hertford, Ware, Cheshunt and Waltham Abbey lie on the River Lee’s banks in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex.

The waterway crosses the London boundary near Enfield Lock before meeting the Thames less than three miles south of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park at Stratford.

Its tributaries include the Stort – which lends its name to Bishop’s Stortford – the Mimram and the Beane.

The longest combined discharge into the River Lee network was at Hatfield Heath in Essex, near Bishop’s Stortford, where sewage spilled into the Pincey Brook for a combined 2289.75 hours – equal to 95 and a half days.

At Cottered in Buntingford, Hertfordshire, sewage spilled into River Beane for 2222.25 hours in 2023.

‘Clean water is a ‘basic of life’, and we haven’t even got that,’ said Green Party councillor Vicky Burt, who represents Cottered at East Herts Council.

‘It feels like we have gone backwards 150 years, when sewage was going straight into rivers. We need to either bring water back into public hands or up the fines for illegal releases so the water companies think twice about what they are doing.’

Cllr Burt said she crosses a nearby river daily. ‘For my children, it’s a real shame,’ she said.

‘They are growing up in the countryside, and paddling in the river should be something they can do.’

Discharge hours at Cottered have more than doubled on 2022, when the total number of spill hours was 1,010.

There were also major storm overflow discharges in 2023 at Brickendon, near Hertford, where Thames Water released sewage into the River Lee for a combined 1,390.75 hours.

The firm released sewage into the River Beane at Weston, near Stevenage, for 959.25 hours.

‘It’s outrageous,’ said Conservative Party councillor David Andrews, East Herts Council member representing Ware Rural and vice chair of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority.

‘It’s immensely frustrating.

‘There are a great many rivers in Hertfordshire, and they are all valuable. They are an integral part of what the county is.

‘A healthy river suggests the ecosystem is in a good state, so if we don’t have healthy rivers, we’re in trouble.

‘Rivers sustain life both on and around them – not just habitats but also drinking water.’

Cllr Andrews said sewage firms must consider the needs of people who rely on rivers in Hertfordshire to supply the chalk aquifer for drinking water.

He said: ‘I believe in a free market, but even free markets have to have some controls.’

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage told the House of Lords in July 2023 that rivers in Hertfordshire are ‘under increasing pressure from over-extraction and pollution’.

Baroness Taylor put her name to a cross-party amendment to the now-passed Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which called on ‘protection for chalk streams in England so as to reduce the harmful impacts of excessive abstraction and pollution’.

The government added two references to chalk streams to the act, which a spokesperson said would recognise ‘the value of these distinctive habitats’.

The Labour peer told the Local Democracy Reporting Service: ‘The situation is getting worse and worse, and I think there has got to be some serious action taken to stop this.

‘We need a much greater level of protection for chalk streams. They should be treated as World Heritage Sites.’

Eighty-five per cent of the world’s chalk streams—including the Upper Lee and its tributaries—are in England.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, pure, clear, constant water from underground chalk aquifers makes them ‘perfect’ sources of clean water for drinking, farming and wildlife habitats.

‘We don’t treat them with the seriousness that we should,’ Baroness Taylor added.

‘The level of protection we have is just not working.’

Victoria Collins will contest the new Harpenden and Berkhamsted seat for the Liberal Democrats at the next general election.

She said: ‘It is a complete scandal that filthy sewage is being pumped into Harpenden and Berkhamsted rivers and waterways.

‘With beautiful chalk streams nearby and areas such as the Batford Springs Nature Reserve where families love to paddle, we cannot let this go on.’

A Thames Water spokesperson said: ‘We regard any untreated discharges as unacceptable, and we’re committed to stopping them from being necessary, with the assistance of our regulators.

‘Storm discharges are closely linked to rainfall and groundwater conditions, and our region experienced above-average rainfall for most of 2023, which saw an increase in the frequency and duration of storm discharges from our sites compared to 2022.

‘We’re taking action to reduce discharges and have led the industry in this area with the building of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, a £4.5 billion investment, which is nearing completion and will remove 24 combined sewer overflows from the tidal Thames.

‘This project, alongside previous upgrades to our London sewage treatment sites and the £700million connection from Abbey Mills Pumping Station to our sewage treatment works at Beckton (the Lee Tunnel) which has been in operation since 2016, will capture 95 per cent of the volume of untreated sewage currently entering the tidal Thames in a typical year.’

The spokesperson added: ‘We have also published plans to upgrade over 250 of our sewage treatment works and sewers.’

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