As the water sector announces the biggest shake-up of the sewerage network since the Victorian era, Wessex Water has outlined plans to triple investment to tackle storm overflows.
Last year, Wessex Water invested £69 million to protect the region’s rivers and beaches. This involved multi-million pound schemes to deal with heavy deluges of rainwater to reduce storm overflows.
The water company currently invests around £3 million per month on improving storm overflows, which are licensed to operate automatically during or after heavy rainfall to protect properties from flooding.
The company has also invested in technology to remove phosphorus and other nutrients through advanced treatment at water recycling centres, work which is further helping to improve local river ecology.
From 2025, Wessex Water will triple how much it invests – spending £9 million a month on further improvements to storm overflows, subject to regulatory approval.
Matt Wheeldon, Wessex Water’s director of Infrastructure Development, said: “We know our customers care passionately about protecting watercourses, whether or not they use them for swimming or recreation, and we share their passion.
“That’s why we’re investing unprecedented amounts to help improve river and coastal water quality, including reducing how often storm overflows operate and minimising the environmental impact of our treatment processes.”
Water quality at beaches is assessed by the Environment Agency and most in the Wessex Water region are classified as ‘Excellent’. Storm overflow discharges halved near designated bathing waters in 2022 due to a combination of prolonged dry weather and the company’s investment.
Mr Wheeldon said: “We would love to stop all storm overflow discharges immediately but unfortunately there is no quick fix – eliminating them completely would mean re-plumbing a sewerage system which has been built in this way for over 150 years.
“The solutions we’re rolling out include separating out rainwater to stop it entering sewers and constructing large storage tanks to contain the combined rain and sewage for later treatment.
“Beyond this, we have further plans for nature-based solutions such as natural wetlands and reed beds. It is vital that regulators support these schemes to help reduce carbon impacts, minimise bill rises for customers and greatly improve river water quality.”
Wessex Water has said that numerous other factors affect water quality, including wildlife and agricultural run-off, and has spearheaded collaboration with farmers on catchment partnerships to deliver cost-effective solutions.
As water quality is affected by various sources and river users want to know more, Wessex Water has developed an Artificial Intelligence (AI)-led app which predicts bacteria levels using other parameters that can be continuously obtained from sensors within bathing or recreational waters.
Mr Wheeldon added: “We’ve already used AI to provide real-time water quality information at Warleigh Weir, near Bath, Baltic Wharf in Bristol and in Poole Harbour where we are providing water quality forecasts for the shellfishery and recreational businesses.
“We have identified over 50 other river locations across our region popular for recreation and we’re working with local authorities and community groups to provide better information on water quality, temperature and river flow.”
Wessex Water was the first UK company to publish data on overflow operations 365 days a year and provides information on bathing waters and other recreational areas to councils and Surfers Against Sewage.
The company has committed to reducing the number of hours storm overflows operate by approximately 25% by 2025.