A water firm linked to the equivalent of 317 Olympic pools of raw sewage being dumped into a river popular with bathers has sparked outrage by appearing to suggest the pollution issue was partly down to a “change in expectations” from residents.
Yorkshire Water’s response to sewage discharge concerns raised by senior Tory MP Julian Smith over the rivers Aire and Wharfe was revealed as a study by a retired professor of computational biology found the huge volume of sewage had been released into the River Nidd from just four sewage treatment works in 2020.
Professor Peter Hammond concluded the sewage was released into the river at Pateley Bridge, Harrogate, Darley and Kirk Hammerton.
The findings have emerged as the Nidd Action Group issued a call for a stretch of the River Nidd at Knaresborough to be granted bathing water status, as part of a drive to clean up the watercourse.
Ouseburn division councillor Arnold Warneken said: “The water companies should produce accurate figures, they must have them and if not should be prosecuted.
“We need the infrastructure in place at the start of any projects and should not allow developers to put further strain on the sewage handling, as we know all that leads to is further pollution.”
The river saw 870 sewage dump incidents last year, according to Environment Agency figures. Recent testing of water pollution in the river has shown the harmful bacteria E. coli is at “concerningly high” levels.
Yorkshire Water’s chief executive this month apologised for sewage being discharged into the region’s rivers and promised to invest £180m in reducing leaks from storm overflows.
The firm said it would also spend £50m on improving the water quality of the River Wharfe, a stretch of which in Ilkley became the first in England to be designated a bathing site in 2020.
However, elected community representatives told a North Yorkshire Council meeting in Skipton on Thursday Yorkshire Water’s response to Mr Smith’s concerns had been “profoundly inadequate”.
The firm wrote: “Whilst storm overflows have been in use for many decades, since well before the sewer network entered private ownership, society is no longer content with their use and Government, regulators and the water sector have responded to that change in expectations.”
Councillors said the firm was blaming the apparent lack of sewage infrastructure near waterways “on the fact that people’s standards had increased and the firm’s monitoring processes improving”.
In a separate response, to Harrogate and Knaresborough councillors, Yorkshire Water said “climate change and changes in land use have had a huge impact” on the sewage network.
The firm wrote: “There is a misapprehension that discharges from overflows have increased dramatically in recent years. Instead, the recording of discharges has increased as we have installed Event Duration Monitoring devices on our network.”
Nevertheless, many North Yorkshire councillors say they have been inundated with sewage-related complaints, with Bishop Monkton division councillor Nick Brown saying Yorkshire Water had promised an action plan to stop sewage flooding in six of his parishes.
Aire Valley councillor Andy Brown told Mr Smith there had been “a gradual drift towards releasing sewage when the weather isn’t particularly bad”.
He added: “The law is very clear. You cannot release sewage unless there is exceptional weather. I have photographs of sewage being released into the Aire on dry days.”
When asked about who should pay for extra sewage infrastructure, Mr Smith replied: “Inevitably, the cost does have to be borne somewhere, and I accept the point, but the huge cost of fixing this problem is a challenge.”
Councillors told Mr Smith the Government should be pressuring water firms to spend more of their profits on improving infrastructure.
The firm did not directly respond to Prof Hammond’s findings or claims made by councillors that children have become sick with suspected E coli after swimming in the Nidd.
Instead, Yorkshire Water stated storm overflows had not been identified by the Environment Agency as the reason why the ecological status of the river is poor.
It stated: “Where Yorkshire Water can make a difference is in reducing phosphorus from all final effluent wastewater and that is why we are investing £790m by 2025 in phosphorus removal as part of our overall investment programme which has been in place for some time.
“Our shareholders are funding the majority of our plans for a £180 investment in storm overflow improvements in the next two years. They are supportive of our environmental commitments and this latest funding announcement takes our total investment in river water quality between 2020-2025 to almost £1bn.
“The additional national investment of £10bn announced recently by Water UK will be paid by shareholders up front, with the costs then paid back in tiny increments each year through bills. We won’t know the precise impact on bills for some time. It is clear that huge investment is needed, but precise levels are for the regulator to determine.”