An environmental group has said they are "appalled, but not surprised" by figures relating to sewage spills from storm overflows in Yorkshire after data has shown the number of sewage incidents has risen by 122 per cent in the region.

Storm overflows dumped sewage into rivers and seas across the Yorkshire Water area for a combined 516,386 hours of sewage spills in 2023; up from 232,054 hours in 2022.

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 77,761 spills in the Yorkshire Water area in 2023, compared to 54,273 in 2022, 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.

Following the publishing of the data, the Save Our Swale group has grilled Yorkshire Water for its profits while expressing concern with the most recent figures. 

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

A spokesperson for the Yorkshire environment group said: "Save Our Swale is appalled, but not surprised, by the massive increase in untreated sewage being dumped in Yorkshire’s rivers.

"So far as the stretch of river known as the mid-Swale is concerned, there were 2,183 sewage dumps in 2023 (up from 1,342 in 2022). This means that on average there were 12 dumps of raw sewage for every mile of the mid-Swale. 

"Yorkshire Water has had years to invest in revamping the sewage infrastructure; instead, they paid out £62 million in dividends in 2023 to its shareholders.  It’s time Yorkshire Water stopped profiting from polluting our waterways."

Alongside concern from campaigners, both the frequency and duration of spills were also up on 2020 levels, which saw comparable amounts of rainfall.

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)

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.

Another set of environmental campaigners who have been critical of the figures are Surfers Against Sewage, who claimed the sewage spills were a 'generational scandal' and called on water companies to be punished accordingly. 

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)

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.

“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.”

"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."

The Yorkshire Water sewage spills from storm overflows:

Alongside figures from sea sewage in the North East and Yorkshire, river 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)

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.