July 10, 2014 [link to original article]
WE HAVE become increasingly aware of bathing water quality, especially in the South West where top marks in the Good Beach Guide or a Blue Flag have become a prerequisite for tourism.
The Environment Agency samples at 420 beaches for faecal bacteria during the bathing season, and most of us trust the results enough to let our children bathe in certified waters.
The UK’s bathing waters are extremely clean compared to a few decades ago. However, back then our coastal waters were just another section of the nation’s untreated sewage network, so this does not provide a meaningful baseline for more enlightened times.
The crystal clear waters of Cornwall are viewed as some of the cleanest in the UK, and they can be. However, I recently noticed ear-buds and other sewage detritus in the water and along the strandline in many areas, even in the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural beauty (AONB).
Our outdated combined sewer overflow system cannot cope with heavy rainfall, so raw sewage regularly spews into the sea and back onto our beaches. Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) advise not to enter the sea for 48 hours after rain, which in Cornwall often doesn’t allow a great deal of time in the water.
As reported in the West Briton, the mussel farming industry in the Fal collapsed last month and two weeks ago bathers had to leave the water and a surfing competition was cancelled at Godrevy due to sewage pollution. The Fal is a special area of conservation and contains several sites of special scientific interest, while Godrevy has Marine Conservation Society Good Beach Guide top marks, so why does the user experience not match the data?
Sporadic water quality testing only provides a snapshot, and only about 20 tests conducted during the entire bathing season often fail to detect the irregular pollution from sewage overflows. ‘Acceptable’ levels for faecal bacteria are also set far too low.
The EU is getting much stricter from 2015 – twice as strict – and many UK bathing beaches could struggle to comply with the higher standards.
Are our water companies to blame? A 2008 Freedom of Information request revealed unregulated overflow pipes dumping unlimited amounts of raw sewage along the coastline – more than 60 operated by South West Water (SWW).
After the Godrevy incident, where the RNLI evacuated people from the water, the head of waste water at SWW, Richard Gilpin, told the BBC: “It’s better to put it in the sea than in people’s properties”.
But would it not be better to invest in improving the infrastructure and stop blaming the Victorians? At Morecambe Bay, in Lancashire, 1,000 cubic metres of storm sewage storage has been installed to prevent any more spillages.
Cornwall is nationally famous for its stratospheric water rates, yet we see the same problems year after year. We urgently need to regulate the flow of rainwater into our aged sewer network, or all the overflows must be replaced by separate sewers for rainwater and sewage – there is no cheap option. But the longer action is delayed, the more damage there will be to our tourism industry.
■ Julian Powis is also a marine bio-logist and runs JPA Services firstname.lastname@example.org