Southern Water has discharged raw sewage for more than 3,700 hours at 83 bathing water beaches during the first eight days of November alone, according to company data analysed by campaigners.
Ed Acteson of SOS Whitstable, which has been monitoring the data, said in his experience the scale was equivalent to five months’ worth of discharges: “The Environment Act was supposed to herald a new era for the environment in Britain. But this is the worst I have ever seen sewage pollution in the south-east.”
Monitoring of the storm overflow sewage discharges by Southern Water this month reveals the scale of releases into coastal bathing waters. The beach at Pagham, to the west of Bognor Regis, which boasted an “excellent” water quality rating this summer, has seen raw sewage discharged for more than 179 hours in two separate and continuing releases, according to the data published by the company.
On the Isle of Wight, Cowes has seen sewage released for more than 80 hours, Ryde more than 128 hours, and Sandown Beach, which the tourist board says is one of the finest on the island, has had more than 65 hours of wastewater and raw sewage discharges. In total, in the first eight days of November, the company has discharged wastewater at beaches for more than 3,700 hours, in 493 releases. At one point in the last 48 hours, 78 bathing water beaches showed sewage releases on the company map. Throughout the whole of 2021, Southern discharged raw sewage into waterways for more than 160,000 hours, with the average spill lasting 8.4 hours, according to Environment Agency data.
Bathing waters, which are rated from poor to excellent in the summer months, are not tested by the Environment Agency outside its designated swimming season from May to the end of September, so the impact of the scale of such discharges this month is not being measured.
Acteson said: “There are 86 bathing water beaches and as of yesterday 78 of them were showing sewage discharges, and another five had discharges which the company says are non-impacting. This is environmental vandalism and most of these discharges are still ongoing as we speak. It fills us with foreboding for the coming winter months.”
Southern Water recently changed its Beachbuoy pollution alert map for the public, reducing the amount of automatic red alerts after a discharge. The company is filtering the releases to decide whether they are impacting or non-impacting, with releases that are listed as impacting marked red on the Beachbuoy map. Southern says it takes into consideration factors such as tides, and the length of the sewage outflow, with 5km (3 mile) outflows into the sea described as non-impacting.
The November data analysed by SOS Whitstable shows that Southern Water has listed a raw sewage discharge at Bexhill of more than 120 hours as “non-impacting”.
Nick Mill, the head of Southern Water’s clean rivers and seas taskforce, said stormy weather and significant levels of rainfall over the past week had resulted in high volumes of surface water runoff, which could have overwhelmed the network.
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“To protect homes, schools and businesses from flooding, storm overflows act as a release value to relieve the pressure – allowing excess flows to bypass treatment and enter rivers and the sea,” he said. “These discharges are heavily diluted, typically being 95% rainwater, and are permitted by the Environment Agency. However, we know that these are not acceptable and this is why we are working hard to reduce them across our region.”
He added that the taskforce was leading the industry in finding solutions, and that while improvements continued, the company would provide infomation via their Beachbuoy service in order to be “as open and transparent as possible about any potential impact to coastal bathing waters and recreational watercourses”.