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Hatfield Heath, Takeley, Little Hallingbury and Stansted in Thames Water sewage discharge ‘top 10’ for River Lea network in 2023

Four sites near Bishop’s Stortford were in the top 10 for sewage discharges into the River Lea and its tributaries – including the River Stort – by Thames Water in 2023.

Pincey Brook at Hatfield Heath was the worst affected, with wastewater from toilets, sinks and drains spilling out for 2,289.75 hours. At Takeley, pollution flowed into the brook for 1,207.75 hours, Little Hallingbury Brook was overwhelmed for 846.75 hours and at Stansted Mountfitchet, the Stort was affected for 325.25 hours.

In all, Thames released sewage into the Lea and its tributaries 1,060 times last year – an average of almost three times a day. Cross-party politicians say the scale of sewage dumping is “an outrage”.

The locations of the 10 highest sewage discharges by Thames Water into the River Lea network - including the Stort and Pincey Brook - in 2023
The locations of the 10 highest sewage discharges by Thames Water into the River Lea network - including the Stort and Pincey Brook - in 2023

A Thames spokesperson said untreated discharges were “unacceptable” and added the firm was “committed to stopping them from being necessary”.

The Environment Agency – which is responsible for regulating water and land pollution as well as flood management and conservation – records when water firms across England use storm overflows. In 2023 it recorded 3.6 million hours – more than double the 1.75m in 2022.

Companies use storm overflows when sewage treatment works cannot cope with the amount of wastewater and rainwater entering their treatment works during heavy downpours. Discharges without wet weather, or “dry spills”, are banned because rainwater has not diluted the sewage and household chemicals in wastewater pipes.

Rye House Sewage Works. Picture from East Herts Green Party
Rye House Sewage Works. Picture from East Herts Green Party

Luton, Harpenden, Hertford, Ware, Cheshunt and Waltham Abbey lie on the River Lea’s banks in Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and Essex. The waterway crosses the London boundary near Enfield Lock before meeting the Thames less than three miles south of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park at Stratford.

Its tributaries include the Stort – a rare chalk stream which flows from the village of Langley, through Bishop’s Stortford to the Lee Navigation at Hoddesdon – the Mimram, Beane and Rib.

The longest combined discharge into the Lea network was at Hatfield Heath, where sewage spilled into Pincey Brook for the equivalent of 95.4 days in 2023.

At Cottered, near Buntingford, sewage spilled into the Beane for 2,222.25 hours, or 92.6 days – more than double the 1,010 hours in 2022.

Cllr Vicky Burt by Gemma Brunton Photography
Cllr Vicky Burt by Gemma Brunton Photography

“Clean water is a ‘basic of life’ and we haven’t even got that,” said Green Party councillor Vicky Burt, who represents Cottered on East Herts Council. “It feels like we’ve gone backwards 150 years, when sewage was going straight into rivers.”

Cllr Burt, who is bidding to become Green Party MP for North East Herts, said: “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.”

There were also major storm overflow discharges at Brickendon, near Hertford, where Thames released sewage into the Lea for a combined 1,390.75 hours.

“It’s outrageous,” said Conservative Cllr David Andrews, the East Herts Council member for Ware Rural and vice chair of Lee Valley Regional Park Authority.

“There are a great many rivers in Hertfordshire and they are all valuable… They are an integral part of what the county is. 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.”

Cllr Andrews said sewage firms must consider the needs of people who rely on rivers in Hertfordshire to supply the chalk aquifer for drinking water. He said: “I believe in a free market, but even free markets have to have some controls.”

Baroness Sharon Taylor of Stevenage
Baroness Sharon Taylor of Stevenage

Baroness Taylor of Stevenage told the House of Lords in July 2023 that rivers in Hertfordshire were “under increasing pressure from over-extraction and pollution”.

She 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 said: “The situation is getting worse and worse, and I think there has got to be some serious action taken to stop this. We need a much greater level of protection for chalk streams… They should be treated as World Heritage Sites.”

River Stort, between Grange Paddocks and Castle Park
River Stort, between Grange Paddocks and Castle Park

Some 85 per cent of the world’s chalk streams – including the Stort – are in England. According to the World Wide Fund for Nature, pure, clear, constant water from underground chalk aquifers makes them “perfect” sources of clean water for drinking, farming and wildlife habitats.

“We don’t treat them with the seriousness that we should,” Baroness Taylor added. “The level of protection we have is just not working.”

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 £4.5 billion 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 £700m connection from Abbey Mills Pumping Station to our sewage treatment works at Beckton (the Lee Tunnel), 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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