Sewage spills at West’s beaches
Dozens of sewage spills have hit Westcountry beaches this summer – just weeks into a pioneering trial in which beachgoers are warned of pollution problems by text message.
A groundbreaking collaboration between Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) and South West Water means the public can now get real-time warnings when emergency sewage outfalls affecting beaches are spilling untreated waste.
And while environmental campaigners have been delighted with the success of the trial, they say they are "extremely disappointed" at the rate at which beaches are being polluted.
Since June 20, sewage has spilled 42 times at 12 beaches in Devon and Cornwall, including nine times at Salcombe in the South Hams and eight times at Summerleaze at Bude. Six spills have also been recorded at Crantock, near Newquay, and Meadfoot in Torquay.
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Andy Cummins, campaigns director at SAS, said: "We are not surprised, although we are extremely disappointed.
"We are talking about equipment which should be discharging no more than three times in a bathing season and yet we have already had places with six, eight, even nine incidents.
"Raw sewage going into water at Salcombe, at Bude, anywhere, is unacceptable."
Routine discharges of raw sewage into the sea ceased after South West Water's £2 billion Clean Sweep programme. However, concerns centred on discharges from combined storm overflows – essential safety valves allowing sewage to be released when treatment works are overwhelmed by rain water.
Although discharges were licensed by the Environment Agency, water companies had previously refused to say where, and how often, spills happened.
South West Water is one of three companies to be voluntarily taking part in the pilot, following pressure from SAS. It has installed computer monitoring equipment on sewage outfalls which discharge to sensitive areas. Telemetry alerts are then passed to SAS when it is considered to be a "significant" event.
Beachgoers can opt to be alerted by text message or visit the campaign group's website – www.sas.org.uk. So far more than 1,500 people have signed up for the alerts and more than 20,000 text messages have been sent.
Mr Cummins said the trial was "just the tip of the iceberg" and that the information would be used to "highlight the assets which need extra investment". The group is also lobbying the Government for tighter restrictions on the licences which allow water companies to pollute waters.
"In the past, general information has come through months, if not years, later," he added. "Surfers and families coming down on holiday couldn't give two hoots about what the water quality was like in 2009 – they want to know what it's like today.
"People are able to choose which beach they are going to use in accordance with the information we are able to provide. No news is good news in this scenario and when people don't receive that text message, we'd encourage them to go out and have fun in the sea."
South West Water has 224 storm overflows which could affect 93 designated bathing waters. It has already installed telemetry at 149 sites with the project being completed by the end of March next year.
A tougher new Bathing Water Directive will come into force in four years' time.
A spokesman for South West Water said: "We set the bar high for ourselves by having the most beaches in ours of all the national trials and also attempting to offer the fastest and most updated service in the nation.
"Some bathing waters have reported overflows more frequently. We expected this, as the significance criteria we set at each differ and the consents on the overflows themselves differ due to local circumstances. A few, like Bude, have multiple overflow pipes which could affect quality.
"Broadly though, the trial is publicly revealing what we thought: that water quality can be affected for short periods during and after intense storms which are likely to cause overflows."
He said initial feedback had been "very positive", adding: "Like any new system, there have been some teething difficulties and we are analysing the performance of our equipment closely to refine the system even more."