River in Bowland

Our challenges

Our region is a beautiful combination of protected rural and also more densely populated urban towns and cities, with more than 800 miles of coastline, around 430 miles of river, 29 areas which are recognised bathing areas, national parks, and sites of special scientific interest. Its scale and geography all contribute to the challenge of improving our rivers, lakes and seas.

Learn more about combined sewer overflows

In this video we explore why combined sewer overflows play a major part in preventing flooding in our homes, and share some top tips on what you can do to help protect our environment.

View our performance here

We don't usually like to think too much about what happens when we flush the loo but sewer overflows are an important part of the sewerage network which takes away the used water from our homes.

We call them combined sewer overflows (CSO's) and, while they probably don't crop up in your everyday conversation, they play a major part in preventing flooding in our streets and homes. They act as a pressure relief valve when there is too much rainfall, allowing rain water, mixed with sewage, to rise inside the sewer and eventually enter a separate pipe which flows into a river or the sea.

How these overflows work

  • When the sewer system is operating normally, sewage leaves our homes and businesses, sometimes mixed with rainwater, and is sent to one of our nearest treatment works. Sewers are typically only 15% full when it is dry
  • If an area is hit by really heavy rain, like the kind we have seen in more recent summers, the sewers sometimes become completely full of water and the sewage starts backing up
  • If there was no sewer overflow in place, this sewage could enter homes and streets, as the wastewater would force its way out of the network of pipes to the surface, often rising up through manhole covers.-
  • With a sewer overflow in place, the rain water, mixed with sewage, will rise inside the sewer and eventually enter a separate pipe which runs off the main sewer and flows into a river or the sea
  • Under strict conditions, and with the permission of the Environment Agency, water companies like United Utilities are allowed to spill wastewater into the river and sea because it is accepted there is a finite capacity inside sewer pipes
  • Even if a sewer is completely unobstructed and of the approved size, there could still be times when storm waters completely fill them

The Environment Agency estimates these sewer overflows lead to around 30 per cent of sea pollution in the North West, with water quality along our coastline also affected by lots of other factors. We are committed to improving our beaches and working with our partners on tackling these issues, such as rain running off highways and farm land, private drainage being incorrectly connected and people not cleaning up after their dogs.

Additional challenges

In addition to our specific challenges with CSOs, there are also a number of wider issues impacting water quality.