It’s been two years since the UK’s poop-engulfed beaches became a national scandal. Now it’s even worse

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It was late 2021 when James Richardson heard about England’s poop problem.

“I saw a tweet talking about the extent of the problem, and the numbers were so enormous I thought it couldn’t be true – that there was so much sewage being dumped,” he says now.

“I thought, ‘It’s social media, someone must be exaggerating.’ So I thought I’d look into it, because if it was true it’d be a scandal.”

His research tallied with the tweet: raw sewage was being pumped into England’s rivers and onto beaches at a truly astonishing rate. So-called “storm overflows” – designed to flush overly full drains into rivers, seas and even across beaches – are supposed to be used in exceptional circumstances, as the name suggests. But in 2021, the year Richardson saw the data, they disgorged their contents across the country for a total of 2.7 million hours – equivalent to over 300 years.

Over the past few years, members of the British public have seen beaches closed for swimming on peak summer holiday weekends, dead fish floating in busy rivers, and found themselves surfing effluent-engorged waves.

“First it was the smell,” says Giles Bristow, who once found himself in the middle of a sewage slick when surfing in Staunton, Devon.

“Then we saw toilet paper and sanitary products in the water. That was a real moment of, ‘Oh, god.’”

Over the past few years, the UK’s “poopy beaches” problem has been sparking increasing anger from citizens around the country.

The cancelation of an annual swimming race in the Thames right before the current bank holiday weekend has also caused concern. The race, which has been held since the 1890s, was due to be held in July, but was called off because of fears of sewage in the water.

2022’s August Bank Holiday – a weekend when Brits flock to the beach – saw the closure of a beach in Brighton and Hove, a popular seaside escape for Londoners. “Brighton and Hove seem to be deluged over and over again,” Hugo Tagholm, the ex-CEO of campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (who has now been replaced by Bristow), told CNN at the time.

This weekend is another bank holiday. But while Brighton and Hove beaches are safe to swim at, many others around the UK are not. According to Surfers Against Sewage’s live tracker, 12 out of 14 storm overflows on the Isle of Wight – a popular retreat off the southern coast – are currently emitting sewage. There’s a slew of currently operating overflows in popular vacation spot Devon, too – from ones near towns like Salcomb and Dawlish, to one on Sandy Bay, a beach that has in the past won Blue Flag status for its pristine waters.

Storm overflow pipes often disgorge their contents onto beaches, like this one in Swanage, Kent. - Finnbarr Webster/Getty ImagesStorm overflow pipes often disgorge their contents onto beaches, like this one in Swanage, Kent. - Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Storm overflow pipes often disgorge their contents onto beaches, like this one in Swanage, Kent. – Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Despite widespread public outcry, the situation has been worsening. Graphs on Richardson’s website, the aptly named Top of the Poops – which focuses on England – showed a slight downward trend from 2020 to 2022, before rising sharply in 2023.

Sewage spills increased by 54% last year, according to data released in March by the Environment Agency – a UK government-founded public body established to “protect and improve” the environment.

Back in 2021, Richardson, a software developer, was so horrified by what he saw that he launched his website to share the data in an accessible way – right down to the name, echoing a TV program from everyone’s childhood, “Top of the Pops.”

Anyone wanting to see the spills in their area can search the data by water company, beach, river, shellfish-cultivation area, and – in bad news for politicians – constituency.

“People can see what’s happening in their local area, and it really shows what a terrible problem we have,” says Richardson. “The numbers are too hard to keep in your mind – and it’s not getting any better.

‘Simply not good enough’

After outrage in 2022 – which included the UK’s chief medical officer labelling it a “growing public health problem” and the Environment Agency chair calling for CEOs of the offending water companies to be jailed – things have worsened.

The annual “Event Duration Monitoring” (EDM) of storm overflows in England, released in March, said sewage spills had increased in 2023 by 54%. The average number of yearly spills per overflow had increased from 23 in 2022 to 33 – equivalent to more than one per fortnight. The total spills went from 301,091 to 464,056.

Worse still, sewage spilled into UK waters for double the amount of time in 2023 that it did in 2022: a whopping 3.6 million hours, or the equivalent of over 400 years.

There were fewer “well behaved” overflows, as well. Those that spilled fewer than 10 times in a year were down from 48% in 2022 to 40% in 2023. And those that didn’t spill at all went from 18% to 13.9%. Those overflows for “exceptional” circumstances have become all to common.

The terse verdict from the Environment Agency? “Simply not good enough.”

“It’s a total scandal,” says Giles Bristow, who is CEO of marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage. “Things have got massively worse – it’s a shocker.”

Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage have created an app to show real-time information for beaches. - Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures/Getty ImagesCampaign group Surfers Against Sewage have created an app to show real-time information for beaches. - Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures/Getty Images

Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage have created an app to show real-time information for beaches. – Andrew Aitchison/In Pictures/Getty Images

A Surfers Against Sewage report found that 1,924 people fell ill after entering the UK’s waters between October 2022 and September 2023 – three times the number reported the previous year. The Liberal Democrats political party is campaigning for victims to be compensated by the water companies.

Bristow attributes blame to “massive underinvestment by private water companies who’ve failed to do their duty.” UK water services were privatized in 1989.

Richardson is particularly aggrieved because his provider, Thames Water, splits his bill into two portions. “One is for fresh water, the other – about half your bill – is for treating sewage,” he says. “So it’s shocking to find out that they’re essentially fly-tipping this stuff.”

In 2021, Thames Water was fined £4 million (just under $5 million) for a 2016 incident in which it discharged an estimated half-a-million liters of raw sewage into streams near Richardson’s home, killing around 3,000 fish. The judge imposing the fine called it “disgraceful.”

In November 2023, it was estimated that the company had poured at least 72 billion liters of sewage into the Thames, England’s longest river, since 2020. Thames Water did not respond to a request for comment from CNN. Previously, the water company has said it is working to improve infrastructure to prevent future discharges.

“It’s like paying for your recycling to be taken away and finding they’re just dumping it in the sea,” says Richardson.

“We pay quite a lot for water in England. We’re not asking them to make the rivers better – just not to dump stuff in there.”

A global problem

A sewage spill closed Long Beach, California, in April 2023. - Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/Getty ImagesA sewage spill closed Long Beach, California, in April 2023. - Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

A sewage spill closed Long Beach, California, in April 2023. – Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Of course, sewage in the water is nothing new – and it’s not just a problem in the UK.

For instance, in 2018, then-president of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte closed Boracay island in the Philippines for almost six months, calling it a “cesspool”

The US is no stranger to sewage spills, either. One closed the sands of Long Beach, California, in 2022, and again in April 2023.

Bristow – who still happily enters the water, but advises checking Surfers Against Sewage’s real-time pollution-tracking app before doing so – calls water pollution “a global issue.” But he also says that many other countries are better at dealing with sewage – and monitoring it, too. In France, for example, the public can access daily updates about water quality in their area.

“The UK has consistently bumped along the bottom of European tables [for water cleanliness],” he says.

In 2020 (the last year that the UK was part of the EU), the country had the lowest quality bathing water in Europe, with just 17.2% of UK beaches rated as “excellent.” Compare that to Cyprus, where all beaches made the grade, or Greece, where 97.1% were ranked excellent.

Compare it, too, to 2022’s data, where – in lieu of the UK, which no longer figures in the statistics, since it’s no longer part of the EU – the lowest-rating country is Poland, with 55.9% of its beaches rated excellent for water quality.

It’s not just the beaches. According to 2019 data, just 14% of England’s rivers and lakes were classed as having “good ecological status.”

In 2012, the European Commission took the UK to the European Court of Justice for breaching wastewater regulations.

As Chris Whitty, then the UK’s chief medical officer, wrote in his 2022 report, “Nobody wants a child to ingest human faeces.”

“It’s vital we aren’t reclassified as ‘the dirty man of Europe,’” Hugo Tagholm told CNN that same summer.

Poop as a political issue

Storm overflows are a common sight on the UK's beaches. Here, a child is playing with the discharge from an overflow on Borth Beach, Wales. - Christopher Furlong/Getty ImagesStorm overflows are a common sight on the UK's beaches. Here, a child is playing with the discharge from an overflow on Borth Beach, Wales. - Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Storm overflows are a common sight on the UK’s beaches. Here, a child is playing with the discharge from an overflow on Borth Beach, Wales. – Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

So how can things improve?

The UK’s Victorian drainage system is often blamed for not being able to handle 21st-century levels of sewage. Adding to the pressure, rainwater runoff passes through the same pipes as wastewater from houses and offices. Add in increasingly extreme weather events thanks to the climate crisis, and you have a recipe for overflowing drains.

And yet, that doesn’t quite explain the situation in the UK. According to research from the Royal Society of Chemistry, storm overflows should only enter use when sewers are at six times their usual volume. Yet data from the UK’s Met Office shows that 2021 and 2022 were actually drier than average years, and 2023 was only 11% wetter than average.

Bristow wants “smarter,” climate-proof solutions for what looks set to be a wetter UK climate.

In fact, forget just widening pipes – he wants to prevent rain from even making it as far as the drains. He suggests initiatives such as reforesting areas to hold back heavy rain, or introducing wetlands, as providing a “natural defense.”

None of this will be quick. Surfers Against Sewage is campaigning for an end to discharges in bathing water and high-priority nature sites by 2030. Bristow says they’re in talks with all major political parties in the run up to the UK’s next General Election, which must take place before January 28, 2025.

In the meantime, 2023 saw the government fitting monitors to all England’s storm overflows, so that data can at least be gathered.

The government’s “Storm overflows discharge reduction plan,” published in 2022, sets targets for water companies to “reduce the impact of storm overflows” by 2050.

“It’ll take time to turn the tank around, but the tide is turning,” says Bristow. “We should expect to see things turn around by 2030 if we’re making the right investment decisions now. The time to act is now or never.”

That sounds like six more years of poopy beaches, but Bristow is adamant that nobody should put off a trip to the UK coastline because of the sewage problems.

“We have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and hospitable communities,” he says. “Come and surf, enjoy our beaches and our breaks. But download the [Surfers Against Sewage] app, and know where to go in.”

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