Surfers, paddleboarders and swimmers in the United Kingdom paddled out to fight water pollution last weekend. On Saturday, May 20, the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage organized a national day of action to protest water quality in England. There were 12 main protests hosted nation wide, targeting each of the UK water companies, as well as a few smaller DIY protests. The protest was a reaction to mounting frustration regarding UK water quality.
The protest was held as water companies have come under public criticism over dumping raw sewage and the overall poor-water quality of rivers and beaches since the industry was privatized by the then Conservative government in 1989, as Reuters reports.
Surfers against Sewage defined their terms on the organization page for the protests, “We’ve seen our rivers, the ocean and wildlife ruined by reckless behavior from water companies. They continue to dump raw sewage for millions of hours each year, while regulators and government let them get away with it. We’re getting sick from swimming, while water company fat cats stash their cash. They’re denying us safe access to the blue spaces we love and depend on for our mental and physical health. We’ve had enough of this sh*t show. It’s time for real change.”
The end goal is to end sewage discharges in English bathing waters and achieve a 90 percent reduction of all sewage discharges by 2030. This is a far cry from Environment Agency data that shows untreated sewage was pumped into England’s rivers and oceans at least 301,091 times in 2022 – 824 times a day on average.
Water UK, the trade association representing the UK’s privatized water companies, issued an apology on Thursday. Ruth Kelly, the chair of Water UK, said, “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear: we are sorry. More should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner and the public is right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches.
“We have listened and have an unprecedented plan to start to put it right. This problem cannot be fixed overnight, but we are determined to do everything we can to transform our rivers and seas in the way we all want to see.” Water UK went on to promise to invest £10b this decade in order to address the problem. They claimed their plan would cut the number of overflow incidents by up to 140,000 each year by 2030. However, the investment would be paid for with unspecified increases in customers’ bills.
Campaigners and politicians were unmoved. The protests still went forward two days later, and the apology was decried as too little, too late. “This apology and plan just don’t go far enough. For years water companies have arrogantly dismissed the public’s fears of rivers, lakes and coastlines being damaged by sewage discharges,” said Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, “This announcement does nothing to match the billions water firms have paid out in dividends to overseas investors, or stop their CEOs being handed multimillion pound bonuses.”
Though it is currently coming to a head in the UK, water quality issues due to sewage runoff are not limited to the island nation. Los Angeles surfers will remember when in July of 2021, the Hyperion Water Reclamation Plant dumped 13 million gallons of sewage into the Santa Monica Bay, and now faces a possible $21.7 million fine.