Boat Toilets on Environment Agency Controlled Waters – 2


The Environment Agency Pooh-poohs Poo Pollution on Anglian Waterways


Phil Thane


Uniquely amongst navigation authorities the Environment Agency allows the use of ‘sea toilets’ that flush direct into the waterway on some of it’s rivers. Why? Phil tried to find out…


Whilst the Canal & Rivers Trust (CRT) controls the majority of inland waters in the UK, there are several other navigation authorities, mostly descended from ancient river navigation trusts. Several waterways have come under government control, and that control is exercised by the Environment Agency (EA). The agency controls several rivers but is probably best known to boaters for it’s management of the ‘Anglian Waterways’.

The Anglian Waterways is a group of connected rivers and drains, specifically: the Great Ouse (inc the New Bedford), Little Ouse, Nene, Welland, Glen, Ancholme, Stour, Wissey and Lark, the Cambridgeshire lodes and the Great Ouse Cut Off Channel. The River Cam and the Middle Level drains are managed by the Conservators of the River Cam and the Middle Level Commissioners but both bodies work with EA where their interests overlap.

Pollution should be one such matter as water from the lodes flows into the Cam, the Cam is a tributary of the Great Ouse and the Middle Level is linked to both the Great Ouse and Nene.

Sea Toilets

Sea toilets that empty directly into the water (and use sea water for flushing) are common on small sea-going vessels because they don’t need holding tanks, freeing up valuable space and saving weight, and on long sea voyages there really is no-where else to pump out. In estuaries there are a wide mix of boats, many of them capable of coastal voyages and short sea passages but also small enough to go up river. It makes sense for a boat used primarily at sea to have a sea toilet, though the modern preference is for a small holding tank that can be pumped out ashore when operating inland or in coastal waters but can also be emptied at sea on longer voyages. The tank isn’t compulsory though and older sea-going boats rarely have them.


Older boats past their sea-going days often end up as river cruisers and up-stream from the estuary boats are subject to different rules, byelaws created by the relevant navigation authority. On all CRT waters sea toilets that discharge into the water are forbidden. If fitted they must be disabled in such a way that tools are needed to enable them, and some alternative provided. The same applies on the Thames and Medway under EA control, and the agency actively checks suspect boats and prosecutes offenders. But not on the Anglian Waters. The relevant byelawsi, make no mention of toilets or sewage at all. The Cam Conservators Byelaws iido better,

No person while using or while in, upon or about the River…shall…

7 (a) Cast throw or propel into or upon or place or cause or suffer to fall or flow into or upon any

of the places specified in this Byelaw any sewage… or other offensive or injurious matter or thing’.

The Middle Level Commissioners’ Navigation Byelawsiii were issued in 1875 when pollution was not really an issue. It’s an interesting glimpse into history but makes no mention of toilets.


Byelaws are not the only rules, these days we all need Boat Safety Schemeiv (BSS) certificates, so are sea toilets safe? The regulations are a little ambiguous, the key section being:

31. Bilge pumping and toilet systems must be designed, installed and maintained in a way that

minimises the risk of avoidable pollution.’

The advice notes for examiners go into details about how valves and tanks should be inspected, but allow that where a toilet does discharge overboard there is no need to insist the toilet be sealed.

Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act

Originally passed in 1961 and updated this is the law that is meant to control river pollution in England and Walesv. It starts quite clearly,

1.-(1) Subject to this Act, it shall be unlawful on and after the date appointed under this section to make a discharge of trade or sewage effluent to a stream,…’

Unfortunately the rest of it is about the control of effluent from land-based operations, there’s is no mention of boats and it doesn’t appear this act has ever been used to prosecute boat owners.

EA Policy

Put simply, it doesn’t have one about the use of sea toilets on Anglian Waterways. The best the agency could manage after much questioning was,

With large numbers of registered vessels on our waterways, all river users must act responsibly to ensure a safe and healthy river environment is maintained so all users can enjoy the waterway. This is why we advocate that sewage waste should never be disposed of directly to the water course. All boaters should use the designated pump-out and chemical cassette disposal facilities located upon waterways, at either public facilities or within commercial boatyards and marinas.’

Local boaters have various theories. Some will point out that the number of old boats with sea toilets is small, and decreasing, eventually the problem will disappear. Others remark on the paucity of sanitary stations in the Anglian area. That’s a particular problem for local boat owners that do only short weekend trips that might not take them near one of the facilities, it’s less of an issue for explorers from out of the area. EA has been criticised for failing to provide more, and doubtless more could be done, but it’s not easy. Unlike canal banks river banks are mostly in private ownership and there are few old wharves that can be developed to serve the modern boat trade.

The root of the problem though is under-funding, whilst EA is unable to maintain all the locks on its system and advisory notices about trees fallen in the water are re-issued for 12 months or morevi the agency cannot afford to build more facilities and nor does it want to antagonise boat owners further by imposing new rules on toilets when the very existence of the waterways as navigable routes is under threat.

i Anglian Water Authority, Recreational Waterways (General) Byelaws 1980

iiConservators of the River Cam Byelaws

iiiMiddle Level Commissioners Byelaws

ivBoat Safety Scheme

vi There has been a tree in the water between Bedford and Kempston since Feb 15th 2017, not 12 months yet but I note the notice is published in advance until Jan 12th 2018 so unless EA plans to move it on that date I assume it will still be there by the time this is published.