Government response to the storm overflows discharge reduction plan consultation (2023)

Government response to the storm overflows discharge reduction plan consultation (1)

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This publication is available at https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/storm-overflows-reducing-sewage-discharges/outcome/government-response-to-the-storm-overflows-discharge-reduction-plan-consultation

Executive summary

Between 31 March and 12 May 2022, the government consulted on the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan. This consultation outlined proposed targets to guide the water industry in achieving progressive reductions in the frequency of discharges from storm overflows and the impact of such discharges on ecology and public health. The proposed targets focussed on:

  • eliminating impacts on ecology by 2050
  • reducing the frequency of discharges to bathing waters to meet Environment Agency spill limits by 2035
  • ensuring that overflows do not discharge above an average of 10 rainfall events per year by 2050

This report summarises the feedback received during the consultation period, and how the government intends to respond.The consultation received 21,831 responses from individuals and key stakeholder groups including water companies, charities and consumer organisations. Customers served by all water and sewerage companies in England were represented amongst the respondents.

The consultation was generally welcomed by respondents who were pleased to see that the government is taking action to tackle discharges from storm overflows. One respondent noted that “the proposed Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan has huge potential to drive action to tackle sewage pollution and improve the water environment”.

Around half of those who responded to the consultation agreed with at least one of the proposed targets, and over a quarter agreed with all the proposed targets. Of those who did not agree with the proposed targets, many were of the view that there should be greater ambition in setting the timescales and strengthening the targets. However, a significant number of respondents indicated that they would not be willing to pay more in their monthly water bill to tackle storm sewage discharges, and highlighted the importance of protecting low-income and vulnerable households against bill increases.

The government has carefully considered the feedback received from all individuals and stakeholder groups and balanced the desire to see reductions in discharges from storm overflows as soon as possible against the impact on customer bills and carbon emissions from the water industry. As such, we intend to adopt the targets as originally set out in the consultation.

However, we recognise the significant public interest in this issue, and that efficiencies and new technologies may become apparent as the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan progresses. We also recognise that current impacts on the cost of living present a significant variable that we must be live to in the coming years, and we must continue to carefully monitor any impacts on household bills. We have therefore introduced a review point in 2027. This will allow the government to update the targets in future and raise ambition where this remains affordable and deliverable. The targets form the core of the Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan.

Purpose of the consultation

The Environment Act 2021 puts in place more protections against water pollution than ever before. It includes a raft of measures to deliver progressive reductions in the adverse impacts of storm overflows on the environment and public health. These include a new duty on the government to produce a statutory plan by 1 September 2022 to reduce discharges from storm overflows and their adverse impact, and to report to Parliament on progress.

The government is firmly committed to delivering a step change on action to protect public health and the environment from storm overflow discharges, and has produced a Storm Overflow Discharge Reduction Plan, published here on 31 August 2022, as required under the Environment Act 2021. This sets out clear targets that the water industry must meet in order to progressively reduce discharges from storm overflows.

The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan consultation, which ran from 31 March to 12 May 2022, sought views on the ambition of these targets in advance of its publication.

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Overview of respondents

The consultation was hosted on the online platform Citizen Space. Responses were also collected by email and through 2 external campaigns.

In total, 21,831 responses to the consultation were received, consisting of:

  • 21,776 responses through online questionnaires available through Citizen Space and 38 Degrees, including 18,511 from campaigning organisations and 3,265 that were not identified as from a campaign
  • 55 responses via email, of which one was related to a campaign, and 54 were not identified as part of a campaign

Respondents via Citizen Space were given the option to choose from a pre-defined list of identities. There were 21,473 individuals who responded to the consultation in addition to 58 charities, 34 consumer organisations, 185 others, and 40 who did not select one of the pre-defined identities. There were 41 respondents who classified themselves as water companies, 9 were English water and sewerage providers who made formal representations from their organisations and one joint submission, and the 32 others identifying with water companies. Two organisations, 38 Degrees and Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), ran campaigns encouraging the public to submit responses.

Summary of responses

Questions 1 to 5 in the consultation related to the demographic breakdown of respondents and are not explored further in this section. This summary pertains to questions 6 to 10 which were substantive questions on the proposed targets to be included in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan. Questions 6 to 9 were ‘closed’ questions with set answers to choose from, whereas question 10 was an ‘open’ question allowing those who disagreed with the package of targets to give their reasons for disagreeing. If answers given to question 10 referred directly to a specific target set out in question 6, 7 or 8, we have included these answers in the summary of responses for the relevant questions.

Question 6. Do you agree or disagree with the level of ambition of the ecology target?

21,366 respondents (98% of all respondents) answered this question. Of those that responded*:

  • 37% agreed or strongly agreed with the level of ambition
  • 58% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the level of ambition
  • 3% were neutral
  • 1% did not know

*Figures do not add up to 100% due to rounding

Key themes

Level of ambition

Of the 177 respondents that mentioned the ecology target in their response to question 10, the most frequently stated reasons for disagreeing were that the timescales for delivery are too long (85%) and/or that the targets are not strong enough (76%).

Some consultees called for the ecology target to be more ambitious, proposing that 100% of storm overflows discharging in, or close to, high priority sites should demonstrate no adverse ecological impact by 2030. Some consultees proposed that the deadline for the ecology target should be brought forward from 2050 to 2030 or 2035. Many respondents also recommended including transitional, coastal and shellfish waters within the scope of the ecology target.

The majority of the 8 water companies who responded to question 6 agreed with the level of ambition of the ecology target.

Government response

The ecology target has been set to ensure that no water body in England will fail to achieve good ecological status due to storm overflow discharges, and will result in the complete elimination of environmental harm from storm overflows by 2050. The government recognises and shares the desire to eliminate ecological harm as quickly as possible, but is also mindful that the pace of delivery must be considered alongside any associated increase in customers’ water bills.

However, recognising the public interest, and that efficiencies and new technologies may become available as the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan progresses, the government has decided to introduce a new review point for the targets in 2027. This will allow the government to take account of the latest developments, including in the cost of living, to ensure the targets can be updated to accelerate delivery where possible, while remaining affordable and deliverable.

The rationale for the ecology target is set out in more detail in section 2.2 of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.

Use of screening controls and dilution

Some consultees proposed that screening controls and dilution should be used at all storm overflows to limit the discharge of inorganic material from storm overflows to high priority sites.

Government response

The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan includes a target for water companies to ensure all storm overflows, regardless of where they discharge to, have screening controls to limit discharge of persistent inorganic material (as well as faecal and organic solids), and that they must be well maintained. This target must also be met by 2050, as set out in section 2.2 of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.

Definition of adverse ecological harm

A definition for “adverse ecological harm” (as outlined in the target) was requested by water companies. Respondents identifying as “other” proposed that the definition should extend beyond ammonia and dissolved oxygen indicators to include a wider suite of key chemical groups of concern.

Government response

The government has defined ‘no local adverse ecological impact’ in line with the regulatory standards laid out in the Urban Pollution Management Fundamental Intermittent Standards (FIS). or 99 percentile standards for Ammonia and Dissolved Oxygen measured downstream of the discharge point. These standards are widely used by both industry and regulators as a measure to protect freshwater aquatic life from storm overflow events and ensure that the existing good quality status of a water body is not compromised by storm overflow discharges. As new pollutants emerge, and monitoring techniques are developed, the government will consider whether new parameters should be brought into scope. Further detail on this is provided in Annex 1 of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.

Question 7. Do you agree or disagree with the level of ambition of the public health in designated bathing waters target?

21,475 respondents (98% of all respondents) answered this question. Of those that responded:

  • 44% agreed or strongly agreed with the level of ambition
  • 52% either disagreed or strongly disagreed with the level of ambition
  • 3% were neutral
  • 1% did not know

Respondents felt more strongly about the bathing waters target than other targets with 71% either strongly agreeing (35%) or strongly disagreeing (36%).

Key themes

Level of ambition

Of the 239 respondents that mentioned the bathing waters target in their response to question 10, the most frequently categorised reasons for disagreement were that the timescales are too long (77%), and that the targets are not strong enough (70%).

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Respondents suggested a range of options for raising the ambition of the bathing waters target, including raising the target so that 80 to 100% of discharges into or near bathing waters are eliminated by 2030; adding a new target of a 95% reduction by 2050; or adding an interim target of 50% reduction in discharges by 2030.

The responses from water companies on the bathing waters target were varied. Some water companies echoed the thoughts of other respondents and proposed the use of interim targets, or achieving the reductions more quickly. Others, however, expressed concern that the proposed delivery timelines could be prohibitive of the use of nature-based solutions.

Respondents also commented that the targets lack any aspect of locality or seasonality, specifically around bathing seasons when bathing waters are used more and the risk of harm to public health is higher.

Government response

The government recognises and shares the desire to see rapid improvements in the level of discharges to bathing waters and is committed to protecting public health at these sites. However, any increase in ambition of the targets must be balanced against the increased costs on consumers through water bills. These targets will be reviewed in 2027, to ensure they remain as ambitious as they can be across all water companies, while remaining affordable and deliverable. This will also ensure we can monitor the investments in nature-based solutions and alter incentives or address any barriers as appropriate to maximise the co-benefits from the infrastructure programme.

The rationale for the public health in bathing water target is set out in more detail in section 2.2 of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.

Beyond this, Defra is undertaking wider work to improve water quality at our bathing waters and has already committed to a review of the Bathing Water Regulations. The government will consult on potential policy options for the Bathing Water Regulations in 2023.

Expansion of all targets to cover coastal waters

There were numerous responses that expressed concerns that the existing targets would not tackle storm overflows in coastal locations that are not bathing waters such as Broadstairs, Chichester and Looe, and proposed the targets be extended to include all coastal waters. These respondents referred to the harm of storm overflows to recreational water users in the sea, and to businesses dependent on coastal waters, including the fishing industry, shellfisheries, water sport providers and tourism. Some respondents also noted that bathing seasons should be extended to all year round.

Government response

Storm overflows have a bigger impact on inland waters where there is less dilution of discharges, and this is where we want water companies to target and front load initial action.

The government and the Environment Agency have identified waters which can achieve compliance with the microbial standard by 2030, where there is significant economic production of shellfish and where action is needed to prevent deterioration. The Environment Agency will require water companies to explore the need for action at 63 shellfish waters (63%) between 2025-2030 to drive additional improvements, such as disinfection of sewage from treatment works.

These sites will be reconsidered at the 2027 review point once additional data has been gathered and the costs and benefits assessed.

Question 8. Do you agree or disagree with the level of ambition of the rainfall target?

21,421 respondents (98% of all respondents) answered this question. Of those that responded:

  • 50% disagreed or strongly disagreed with the level of ambition
  • 37% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the level of ambition
  • 8% were neutral
  • 5% did not know

Key themes

Ambition of the targets

Of the 50 respondents that mentioned the rainfall target in their response to question 10, the most common reason for disagreeing was that the timescales are too long (74%), followed by the targets not being strong enough (66%).

Some respondents suggested raising the level of ambition through adding interim rainfall targets to be met by either 2030 or 2035, and others suggested requiring full compliance with the rainfall target by 2040. Reductions in the number of rainfall events per year as referenced in the target were also proposed, such as measuring the 10 rainfall events over a 5-year rolling period or setting a target of only 1 event per year. Some respondents suggested that the target should be amended to consider the volume of rainfall, or that the target should make reference to the number of spills rather than the number of rainfall events.

Water companies operating in the north of England suggested that variations from the targets should be permitted where regional differences in rainfall and sewerage infrastructure justify them.

Government response

The government recognises and shares the desire to reduce the frequency of storm overflow discharges to an absolute minimum, and the long-term goal of eliminating harm from storm overflows. We have considered the costs and benefits of complete elimination of discharges from Storm Overflows in the Storm Overflows Elimination Report.

However, the government intends to maintain the rainfall target at 10 rainfall events per year on the basis that this target balances reducing sewage discharges as quickly as possible, whilst considering potential rises in water bills. Storm overflows were originally designed and intended to operate in unusually heavy rainfall events. However, it is clear that storm overflows are currently being used significantly beyond this original purpose. With this target, we will limit pollution and ensure that overflows are only permitted to be used rarely, in the case of unusually heavy rainfall, if at all. This target will be reviewed in 2027, to ensure our targets remain as ambitious as they can be for all water companies as technology improves and efficiencies become available.

The rationale for the rainfall target is set out in more detail in section 2.2 of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.

The government recognises the challenges associated with regional variations in rainfall, and that there will be more rainfall events in a year in some areas of the country than in others. However, water companies must develop infrastructure and solutions which are capable of managing rainfall in their region as standard practice. This means coming forward with investments that deliver against statutory obligations and setting water bills in a way that is fair for their customers, regardless of whether rainfall events are more or less frequent. We will work with Ofwat to ensure that water company business plans deliver the targets in a way that provides best value to consumers and the environment.

Question 9. Do you agree that this package of targets as a whole addresses the key issues associated with storm overflows?

19,531 respondents (90% of all respondents) answered this question. Of those that responded:

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  • 23% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed
  • 59% of respondents either disagreed or strongly disagreed
  • 11% were neutral
  • 7% did not know

The key reasons for disagreeing with the package of targets, and the government response to these reasons, are set out under question 10.

Question 10. Can you explain why you do not agree with this package of targets as a whole?

There were 2,638 direct responses to question 10 submitted through the Citizen Space online survey or via email (“direct responses”), plus 594 indirect responses where the respondent was assessed as having used the survey tool feedback box on Citizen Space to provide an answer to question 10 (“indirect responses”).

This section includes feedback from email responses, including those from public bodies, water companies and eNGOs who may not have disagreed with one or more of the targets but whose comments were consistent with the themes identified in the responses to question 10.

Key themes

Responses to question 10 were grouped into categories and sub-categories, which are analysed below.

Lack of ambition

The majority (90%) of respondents to question 10 stated that the targets should be more ambitious, considering both the timeline for delivery and the strength of the targets.

Government response

All options for accelerating the proposed targets or otherwise increasing the level of ambition will increase water bills in the short term. As is explored further under question 11, the government is particularly mindful of the need to consider ambition carefully with the cost of living.

As such, and as has been set out for each individual target, it is the intention of the government to adopt the targets that were set out in the consultation, but to introduce a review point in 2027 once more detailed planning data is available to enable accelerated delivery where possible.

Delivery concerns: enforcement and monitoring

A majority (53%) of respondents had concerns about the deliverability of the targets. Some respondents questioned whether the targets would be enforceable by the Environment Agency and Ofwat. Some respondents suggested that public bodies already had the tools to implement targets through permits and existing legislation but felt that this had not happened in the past.

Respondents also suggested that public bodies should do more to improve their monitoring of water quality to ensure that water companies are delivering against the storm overflow discharge reduction targets.

Some water companies raised deliverability concerns relating to supply chain issues, skills shortages and demands on resources and materials.

Government response

Monitoring storm overflows is fundamental to understanding and improving the environment. In recognition of this, we have rolled out Event Duration Monitoring (EDM) to collect data on the location and duration of storm overflow events, and 100% of storm overflows will have EDM in place by the end of 2023. This enhanced monitoring has helped to inform major industry-wide civil and criminal investigations by the Environment Agency and Ofwat into potential non-compliance by water companies at wastewater treatment works.

The Environment Act also includes a new requirement on water companies to monitor the water quality impact up and downstream of their assets, and publish spill data in near real time. The government will issue technical guidance on the requirements of this duty no later than Autumn 2022 and bring forward legislation to implement the duty in 2023.

The government acknowledges that achieving the targets will require a large-scale programme of work, and that there is a need to ensure there is sufficient capacity in supply chains to enable the delivery of the programme. We will consider additional evidence on supply chain capacity at the review point in 2027.

Public bodies should do more

There were 1,305 responses (47%) to question 10 categorised as “public bodies should do more to tackle the root cause of the problem”. Respondents indicated they wanted the government and other public bodies, including the Environment Agency, Ofwat and local authorities, to take more responsibility for the delivery of the targets.

Respondents also called for more to be done to prevent unsuitable materials entering the sewage system.For example, Anglian, Severn Trent and Yorkshire Water want the government to take action to reduce the use of plastics in wet wipes and all single-use sanitary items, including potential legislative bans. Anglian Water would like to see increased education on the issue, with a greater emphasis on manufacturer responsibility. The Chartered Institution of Water and Environment Management (CIWEM) suggested a ban on single use plastics.

Government response

In recognition of the calls for the government and public bodies to do more to tackle the root cause of the problem, Chapter 3 of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan sets out in detail how the government and the regulators are planning to support water companies in the delivery of discharge reduction measures.

Last year we launched a call for evidence on tackling commonly littered single-use plastics such as wet wipes, as well as sauce sachets, cigarette filters and single-use cups, to address sewage blockages.As part of this we are considering various regulatory options – including a ban on wet wipes containing plastic, a mandatory ‘flushability’ standard, mandatory labelling on packaging, and an extended producer responsibility scheme for wipes containing plastic.

Use of sustainable drainage systems (SuDS)

Several respondents highlighted the need to expand the use of SuDs to further reduce pressure on the sewer network. The lack of uptake of SuDs designs by local authorities, highway authorities and developers was noted as an issue by other respondents, who stated that highway authorities often refuse to grant developers connection to their drainage system, and that there is no legal obligation for them to do so, and that this forces developers to connect to the combined sewer. There were also calls to remove legislative barriers to water companies tackling excess rainwater in sewerage systems.

Government response

The government is reviewing the case for implementation of Schedule 3 of the Flood and Water Management Act 2010. The government will publish the review and decision regarding implementation of Schedule 3 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 in Autumn 2022 The review will make recommendations regarding the implementation of SuDS, and will explore our approach to highway drainage. Implementing Schedule 3 would provide the scope to ensure connection to combined sewers is an absolute last resort.

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Reliance on carbon-intensive solutions

Some respondents asked the government to prioritise nature-based solutions when tackling discharges from storm overflows. These respondents reflected that nature-based solutions are better for the wider environment in the longer-term, rather than traditional ‘grey’ solutions which are more carbon intensive.

Government response

Traditional solutions to reduce discharges, such as increasing storage capacity, are carbon intensive. The costs and benefits of such interventions – including embedded carbon costs – have been considered in the Storm Overflows Evidence Project.

Further innovation in this sector will be required to find long-term solutions to tackle water quality issues, that are less carbon intensive. Ofwat’s innovation fund is an opportunity for water companies to develop, test and apply new ideas, including nature-based solutions.We will include consideration of investments in nature-based solutions as part of our review in 2027.

Question 11. Would you be willing to pay more in your monthly water bill in order for water companies to tackle sewage discharges as outlined in this consultation?

19,520 respondents (89% of all respondents) answered this question. Of those that responded*:

  • 46% of respondents said they would pay more in their water bills specifically to tackle sewage discharges
  • 32% of respondents said they would not pay more in their water bills specifically to tackle sewage discharges
  • 16% of respondents did not know
  • 5% of respondents answered not applicable

*Figures do not add up to 100% due to rounding

Of the sectors that responded to this question, charities were most amenable to bill increases with 61% indicating they would pay more to tackle sewage discharges. 54% of consumer organisations and 46% of individuals also said they would pay more in their water bill specifically to tackle sewage discharges.

Key themes

Impact on customers’ bills

Almost half of respondents indicated that they would be willing to pay more in their water bills to tackle sewage discharges.

14% of respondents to question 10 raised concerns that delivering the targets would be too costly, with many of these respondents particularly concerned about the impact on customer bills. Just under a third of respondents to question 11 indicated that they would not be willing to pay more to tackle sewage discharges, whilst only 17% of respondents to the Surfers against Sewage campaign said they would not want to pay more.

Responses from those selecting South West Water as their water and sewerage provider had the highest percentage categorised as “knock-on impact on customer bills too high” (19%), followed by those selecting Wessex and United Utilities (15%). These companies had some of the highest average water and sewerage bills in 2021 to 22. Yorkshire Water and United Utilities also highlighted concerns around the high levels of rainfall, storms and legacy combined sewer systems in the north of England, and the impact this would have on bills, coupled with the relatively low incomes of citizens who lived in deprived areas in the region.

Some respondents suggested means-testing to protect lower-income households from bill increases.

Government response

The government recognises the importance of ensuring manageable impacts on consumers as a result of increased environmental ambition. That is why we have carefully considered the ambition of the targets with due regard to the cost to the public, as well as impacts on carbon emissions, as set out in the Storm Overflows Evidence Project Report and the Impact Assessment.

We are currently working with the Consumer Council for Water (CCW), Ofwat, charities and water companies to explore the recommendations from CCW’s Affordability Review, to improve support measures to households who are struggling to pay their water bills.

Conclusions

The government welcomes the responses to the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan consultation which highlight the strength of feeling amongst the public and stakeholders on this issue.

The government wants reductions in storm overflow discharges, and the harmful impacts resulting from discharges, delivered as soon as possible. We are also clear, however, that improvements should be delivered in a way that is conducive to the use of nature based solutions and that does not result in disproportionate impacts on customer bills. This is particularly important given the cost of living.

It is therefore the intention of the government to adopt the targets that were set out in the consultation, but to introduce a review point in 2027 once new information, including from companies’ business plans for the planned improvement works, is available. This will ensure that the targets can be updated should it become clear that we can accelerate delivery without imposing disproportionate costs on the water bill payer.

Next steps

This response is being published in conjunction with the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, the Storm Overflows Elimination Report, the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Impact Assessment, and an updated version of the Storm Overflows Evidence Project.

The Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan will be laid in Parliament on 5 September 2022.

The targets set out in the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan will influence the development of water industry business plans for the next price review cycle, which will cover the period of 2025 to 2030. The targets will be reviewed in 2027. Further detail on this is provided in section 2.3 of the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan.

Annex 1: Glossary

Term Meaning
Bathing water target Target proposing that for storm overflows discharging into and near designated bathing waters, water companies must significantly reduce harmful pathogens by either applying disinfection, such as with ultraviolet radiation, or reduce the frequency of discharges to meet Environment Agency spill standards by 2035.
Ecology target Target proposing that water companies shall only be permitted to discharge from a storm overflow where they can demonstrate that there is no local adverse ecological impact. This must be achieved for all storm overflow sites by 2050.
Rainfall target Target proposing that storm overflows must not discharge above an average of 10 rainfall events per year by 2050.
Storm overflows Storm overflows are safety valves built into the combined sewer system and are designed to discharge excess sewage to rivers, lakes, or the sea when rainfall exceeds capacity. This protects properties from flooding and prevents sewage backing up into streets and homes during heavy storm events.
Sustainable drainage systems A sequence of management practices and control structures designed to drain systems (SuDS) surface water in a more sustainable fashion than some conventional techniques.

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