Water companies need to improve their environmental performance as there are still too many serious pollution incidents, the Environment Agency has warned.
The latest annual report from the government agency has found that none of the nine English water and sewerage companies had achieved all the environmental expectations set out for them for 2015 to 2020.
The latest rankings reveal five companies achieving the highest four-star rating in the past year, and Wessex Water, United Utilities and Severn Trent Water in particular have sustained a high performance in the past five years.
But Southern Water and South West Water were the worst for environmental performance, with the Environment Agency warning their performance in looking after the environment has been “consistently unacceptable”.
The remaining companies have failed to make any significant progress to achieve and maintain a leading performance, the report warned.
The sector coped well with the pandemic and water companies have committed more than £850 million of new investment to contribute to a green recovery, it said.
But the Environment Agency warned that England’s rivers are too polluted and said water companies still need to make and sustain substantial improvements in their environmental performance.
Serious pollution incidents remain too high, it said, with 44 serious pollution incidents, which can cause major or significant environmental harm to surface water or groundwater, in 2020.
That is the lowest number in the records since 2005, and an improvement on 52 in 2019 and 56 in 2018.
But it falls well short of at least a 50% reduction compared with the 60 serious incidents in 2012, with a trend towards zero over the period 2015-2020, which companies were expected to deliver.
The report said that while the total number of water quality pollution incidents, including minor as well as major ones, was 285 fewer than the “unacceptable performance” of 2019, it was still the second highest since 2015.
There were 1,919 incidents in total, and the sector as a whole narrowly failed to meet the target to cut the number of pollution incidents by a third on 2012 levels, with a 31% reduction in 2020.
The sector also failed to achieve full compliance for waste water discharge permits from sewage and water treatment works.
The report comes after Southern Water was fined a record £90 million for 6,971 unpermitted sewage discharges, with tonnes of sewage polluting rivers and coastal waters in Kent, Hampshire and Sussex between 2010 and 2015.
Environment Agency chairwoman Emma Howard Boyd said: “Over half the water sector is now achieving the highest industry rating, showing that clear targets and regulatory focus combined with investment in the environment delivers change in the water sector.
“But, some companies are still failing in their duty to the environment and there remains a tendency to reach for excuses rather than grasp the nettle.”
She said the fine shows that environmental laws must not be undermined.
“I have been meeting water company chairs in the last few weeks to set out our expectations for them to redouble their efforts to improve or maintain their environmental performance, something which continues to be a priority for both customers and shareholders.”
Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said the report made for extremely disappointing reading.
“Getting the basics right is critical for water companies and then they need to go further in playing their part in achieving a higher level of ambition for our precious water environment.
“On these grounds I will not hesitate to set higher expectations for both water companies and regulators to ensure a level of service that the people of this country and the environment deserve.”
There are also moves to push forward efforts to eliminate the harm of untreated sewage released from storm overflows, and increase monitoring and transparency from companies on the issue, officials said.
Christine McGourty, chief executive of industry body Water UK, pointed to the five companies in England achieving the four-star rating and serious pollution incidents falling to their lowest level.
“This means that the majority of water and sewerage companies are now defined as ‘industry leading’ by their independent environment regulator, a significant step forward and a reflection of the commitment and focus that water companies place on protecting and enhancing the environment.”
She said companies are investing a further £5 billion on environmental improvements in the next five years, and added: “Looking ahead, we need Government and regulators to work with the water industry on ensuring rivers get the investment they need to achieve and sustain the best possible water quality.”
Susan Davy, South West Water’s chief executive, said: “We take our guardianship of the natural environment very seriously and want to do more.
“We are disappointed with aspects of our environmental performance for 2020 and with minor pollution incidents.
“We are pleased to say that so far in 2021, we have achieved 60% lower than the figure reported today in the EPA report for the same period last year.
She said the company is investing £150 million its largest environmental programme for 15 years, including a commitment to reduce pollutions by 80% and additional storage protection measures to enhance bathing waters.
Dr Alison Hoyle, Southern Water’s director of risk and compliance, said the company welcomes the recognition in the report that it has improved its rating from one to two stars.
“This acknowledged progress is evidence of the impact of the continuing cultural and operational transformation of Southern Water which has been led by chief executive Ian McAulay since he joined the company in 2017.”
And she added: “With a £1 billion programme of investment in the environment over the coming four years, we are confident that the trend of improvement will continue. Southern Water puts the environment and our customers at the heart of everything we do.”