UK beaches facing high levels of sewage pollution

Sewage pollution incident wipes out fish in River Ray

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The scale of the UK’s sewage management problem was brought into sharp relief this summer as some of the country’s most popular beach destinations faced closure during the peak holiday season due to pollution from nearby wastewater releases. The issue continues to cause disruption in 2023, and an updated map shows the dirtiest beaches in the UK in real time.

Swathes of the UK’s waterways and coastline continue to be dangerously polluted by the release of untreated sewage. 

Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are emergency systems designed to prevent sewage backing up into homes in the case of extreme rainfall – but data show they have been overused in recent years.

The Environment Agency recorded over 2.6million hours worth of sewage spills in Britain in 2021 – 25 times more than in 2016.

Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage estimates that over the course of 2020 and 2021, sewage has been dumped into the ocean and rivers around the UK over 770,000 times.

Water companies have faced fierce criticism for their actions, while the Government has been accused of excessive deregulation and inadequate funding.

This summer, following weeks of drought, dry ground was unable to absorb heavy rainfall across the UK putting intense pressure on drainage systems.

As a result, in mid-August holidaymakers at over 50 British beaches were told to stay out of the water by the Environment Agency due to the health risk posed by the polluted water.

“We have been clear that the failure of water companies to adequately reduce sewage discharges is completely unacceptable,” a Downing Street spokesperson said at the time. Ministers have argued they are working to tackle the issue and reduce sewage releases by a quarter by 2025.

READ MORE: Brits bracing for festive dip warned of sewage dumps

Going into 2023, the problem remains a serious concern. On its website, Surfers Against Sewage tracks CSO discharges in real-time in order to keep tabs on water quality. The UK’s most popular bathing waters are rarely spared.

On Wednesday, the group flagged more than 60 warnings across the country for where sewage was released in the past 48 hours – from Blackpool to Littlehampton, and Penzance to Druridge Bay. 

In the Northeast, Blackpool beach is currently in the throes of a severe sewage crisis – Surfers Against Sewage saying a “sewer overflow discharges straight onto the beach around the centre of this beach.”

Just down the coast from Lancashire’s popular seaside resort, damning new research by businesswaste.co.uk found St Annes Beach to be the dirtiest in Britain, with a higher count of E.coli bacteria than anywhere else.

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The South coast may be known for the picturesque rocky coves of Cornwall and the shingle bays of Kent – but nowhere is completely safe from a potential sewage discharge.

Cornwall may be home to five out of the ten cleanest beaches in the country according to businesswaste.co.uk’s study, but that didn’t stop a warning being put in place on Wednesday for Porthleven Sands in Cornwall. 

Visit Cornwall’s description of “three glorious miles of sand and steeply shelving shingle running east from the historic harbour” contrasts sharply with Surfers Against Sewage’s assessment. 

The campaigners said: “There are three sewer overflows in the area, one discharges into the harbour, one to the east of the harbour mouth over the rocks into the sea, and another at the western end of Porthleven West.”

Other popular beaches along the south coast include Senne in Cornwall, Goodrington in Devon, Langstone Harbour in Portsmouth, Littlehampton in West Sussex and Kent’s Herne Bay.

Southern Water – which operates across the South coast from Hampshire to Kent – said in a September statement: “Rain can overwhelm the combined sewer and drainage system which exists in many parts of our region. 

“To protect homes, schools and businesses from flooding, storm overflows act as a release valve and release excess water into the sea. These discharges are heavily diluted, typically being 95% rainwater.”

Meanwhile, most sections of the East coast – including East Anglia, the East Midlands and the North East – are showing little sign of excessive water pollution, save a few exceptions.

Two overflows are currently causing water quality issues in Runswick Bay on the Yorkshire coast, with warnings also in place for the Druridge Bay area in Northumberland.

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