Environmental groups have branded sewage spills from storm overflows as a 'generational scandal' after figures have shown the number of sewage incidents has doubled since 2022 in the region.

Storm overflows dumped sewage into rivers and seas across the Northumbrian Water area for a total of 280,029 hours in 2023, up from 107,536 hours in 2022.

Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Water figures were even more damning, which showed 516,386 hours of sewage spills from monitored storm overflow in the same timeframe; up from 232,054 hours in 2022, or a 122 per cent increase. 

The Northern Echo: Sewage discharged from storm overflowSewage discharged from storm overflow (Image: PA MEDIA)

The data published by the Environment Agency (EA) reveal there were 46,492 spills in 2023 in the Northumbrian Water area, up 56 per cent from 29,697 in 2022, and 77,761 in the Yorkshire Water area in 2023, which the organisation said was partly due to England experiencing its sixth-wettest year on record.

The figures reveal the frequency and duration of spills from storm overflows, which dump untreated sewage into rivers and the sea, usually during heavy rainfall to stop sewers backing up, amid high levels of public concern and anger over the state of England’s waterways and beaches.

The Northumbrian Water sewage spills from storm overflows:

In the aftermath of the figures, environment group Surfers Against Sewage claimed the sewage spills were a 'generational scandal' and called on water companies to be punished accordingly. 

Giles Bristow, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Another year, another total s***show from the greedy, incompetent mess that is our water industry.

The Northern Echo: A sewage pipe discharging into waterA sewage pipe discharging into water (Image: PA MEDIA)

“With such large figures being thrown about it can be easy to become numb to the reality of the situation. But don’t fall for the spin – the deluge of s**t pouring into our rivers and seas is a generational scandal where a broken system, fuelled by greed, is causing catastrophic harm to lives, livelihoods and the natural world.”

The Northern Echo: A general view of the fast flowing and swollen River Ure at Aysgarth Falls, North Yorkshire. Water companies will invest more than £180 million to tackle sewage spillsA general view of the fast flowing and swollen River Ure at Aysgarth Falls, North Yorkshire. Water companies will invest more than £180 million to tackle sewage spills (Image: PA MEDIA)

"No more stern words from lecterns and slaps on the wrist; it’s time for punishments that directly impact the industry’s bottom line and the profiteering decisions being made at the top."

Both the frequency and duration of spills were also up on 2020 levels, which saw comparable amounts of rainfall.

The Northern Echo: A sewage pipe on the beach in the North EastA sewage pipe on the beach in the North East (Image: PA MEDIA)

The figures are at their highest-ever levels, although officials caution that comparisons over the years are difficult as an increasing number of storm overflows have been fitted with monitors over time, and all now have the technology to record spills.

In the North East, Stockton North MP Alex Cunningham has called the sewage data "totally unacceptable".

The Yorkshire Water sewage spills from storm overflows:

He said: “This is an appalling state of affairs across the country and a disgrace that Northumbrian Water has seen a 260 per cent increase in sewage spills over the previous year.  It beggars belief that they aren’t even the worse but there are no badges of honour here.

“Just last year, Northumbrian Water exported  £105m in dividends to its Hong Kong-listed parent company, CK Hutchison Holdings Limited at the same time as they were making our rivers and seas unfit for bathing and other recreation. 

"It is totally unacceptable that companies collectively are dishing out billions in profits at the same time as they are failing to keep our waters clean and safe."

Alongside figures from sea sewage in the North East and Yorkshire, rivers data was just as bad. 

The River Skerne, which flows through Darlington, had 1,328 sewage spills in its catchment area in 2023, an average of 20 spills per mile. This is an increase from 971 spills in 2022.

The Northern Echo: A sewage pipe next to a riverA sewage pipe next to a river (Image: Pixabay)

The River Gaunless, in Bishop Auckland, had 1,235 spills last year, an average of 49 per mile.

The Lower River Wear and Estuary catchment, which flows from Crook, passing through Durham and Chester-le-Street before reaching the North Sea at Sunderland, experienced 5,861 spills in 2023 - more than 2,000 more than the previous year (3,792).

  Environment Agency director of water Helen Wakeham said the figures were “disappointing” but “sadly not surprising”.

“We are pleased to see record investment from the water sector, but we know it will take time for this to be reflected in spill data – it is a complex issue that won’t be solved overnight."

Recommended reading for you:

Don't miss out on the latest news and stories. Subscribe to the Northern Echo for just £2 for 2 months.

In response to the figures, a spokesperson for industry body Water UK said: “These results are unacceptable and demonstrate exactly why we urgently need regulatory approval to upgrade our system so it can better cope with the weather.

“We have a plan to sort this out by tripling investment which will cut spills by 40% by 2030 – more than double the Government’s target.

“We now need the regulator Ofwat to give us the green light so that we can get on with it,” they urged.

The water companies say they want to triple investment to £10 billion over the period 2025-2030 to tackle the problem, which would be paid for through consumer bills.