Hundreds of sewage spills into River Lea and its tributaries last year

Pymmes Brook and River Ching among streams with most spills while Deephams Sewage Treatment Works in Edmonton also highlighted, reports Will Durrant, Local Democracy Reporter, and James Cracknell

A banner protesting sewage spills in the River Lea
A banner protesting sewage spills in the River Lea

Thames Water released sewage into the River Lea and its tributaries 1,060 times in 2023, according to the latest data.

Environment Agency figures reveal wastewater from toilets, sinks and drains spilt out of storm overflows into the River Lea catchment for an equivalent 11,501 hours last year.

This figure is almost double the previous year (2022) when the number of spill hours stood at 5,891.

In the lower Lea area specifically, where the river flows south from Hertfordshire and into London – via Enfield, Haringey, Waltham Forest and Newham boroughs before discharging into the River Thames – there were 202 sewage spills in 2023, up from 180 the previous years.

At Deephams Sewage Treatment Works in Edmonton, which serves a large part of north-east London, there were 18 spills last year compared with 15 in 2022.

The data also highlights persistent problems with three local streams which flow into the Lea in particular – Pymmes Brook, which flows through Barnet and Enfield boroughs, plus the River Ching and Dagenham Brook, which both flow through Waltham Forest.

Along the Pymmes Brook in 2023, there were 24 sewage spills compared to 13 the year previously; along the River Ching there were 67 spills last year compared to 65 in 2022; and along Dagenham Brook there were 35 spills in 2023, up from 32 in 2022.

The major hotspot on the River Ching is Beech Hall Crescent, just south of Highams Park, where all 67 of the spills in 2023 were recorded.

On the Pymmes Brook, hotspots include Lytton Road in New Barnet (eleven spills in 2023) and Deadmans Bridge in Palmers Green (ten spills).

For the Dagenham Brook, problem areas include Low Hall Farm (18 spills last year), St Andrews Road in Walthamstow (ten spills) and Auckland Road Pumping Station in Leyton (seven spills).

In contrast, no sewage spills were recorded last year for the Turkey Brook and Salmons Brook, which both flow through Enfield, nor for the Moselle Brook in Tottenham.

A searchable map of the Environment Agency data has been published by The Guardian here.

River Lea sewage sites map (credit Environment Agency)
River Lea sewage sites map (credit Environment Agency)

Cross-party politicians have described the scale of sewage dumping in the River Lea, whose upper reaches and tributaries are classified as rare chalk streams, as “an outrage”.

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

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The Environment Agency records when water firms use storm overflows throughout the country. The organisation recorded 3.6 million hours of spills across England in 2023, up from 1.75 million hours in 2022.

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.

“Clean water is a ‘basic of life’ and we haven’t even got that,” said Green Party councillor Vicky Burt, of 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.”

“It’s outrageous,” added Conservative Party councillor David Andrews, who is vice chair of Lee Valley Regional Park Authority.

“It’s immensely frustrating […] 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.”

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage told the House of Lords last July that local rivers are “under increasing pressure from overextraction 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.”

Deephams Sewage Treatment Works, Edmonton (credit Thames Water)
Deephams Sewage Treatment Works, Edmonton (credit Thames Water)

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 £4.5billion 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 which has been in operation since 2016, will capture 95% 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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