David & Goliath

Windrush against sewage pollution

We collect and analyse data on water quality, the processes that lead to sewage pollution, and the impact it has on the environment. Citizen Science is a big part of what we do – working with local volunteers and professional scientists.

The Campaign

Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) is a grassroots group of activists based near the River Windrush in Oxfordshire. It hit the news in June 2022, when its ground-breaking investigative work was used by environmental non-profit Wild Justice to take the water regulator Ofwat to court over its alleged failure to stop water companies discharging raw sewage into rivers.

Using the skills of retired data scientist Peter Hammond, they analysed the industry’s own data and coupled it with rainfall records and observable pollution. The group was able to show that water companies were dumping sewage into rivers when they were not supposed to. The Environment Agency, which has had its sewage monitoring budget cut, found WASP’s evidence and the resulting media coverage impossible to ignore. A major investigation into illegal dumping was launched.

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Arguably he [Peter Hammond] has done more in just over a year than the Environment Agency – and many established NGOs – have in the past decade to convince government of the urgent need to reduce pollution in English rivers.” – Ends Report

Arguably he [Peter Hammond] has done more in just over a year than the Environment Agency – and many established NGOs – have in the past decade to convince government of the urgent need to reduce pollution in English rivers.” – Ends Report

The Change

The Environment Act 2021 now requires the Government to produce a plan by September 2023 to reduce sewage discharges from water firms’ ‘storm overflows’ and create a report showing what is needed to eliminate them altogether.

The law also requires water companies and the Environment Agency to publish annual and near real-time data on sewage spills, and forces firms to monitor water upstream and downstream of storm overflows and sewage disposal works. 

Thames Water has pledged a 50 per cent reduction in the total annual duration of sewage spills from overflows by 2030, and an 80 per cent reduction in sensitive catchments.

Anglian Water and Severn Trent say that by 2030 their operations will not be the reason rivers fail to meet water quality standards and that they will reduce the use of their overflows to an average of 20 per year by 2025.

United Utilities has committed to reducing the number of sewage spills by at least a third, between 2020 and 2025.

Southern Water says it will reduce storm overflows by 80 per cent by 2030.

The Future

The campaign has had an amazing knock-on effect for community power. A growing number of communities are realising this is a nifty mechanism by which they can get information on the health of their river. Knowledge is power, and they can then use the data to put pressure on polluters to clean up their act and force the Environment Agency to do the same.

Hard evidence is hard to dispute.

Who else was involved?

WASP has collaborated with multiple charities who have similar goals. They also engage with companies and government agencies responsible for managing sewage.