Beautiful but deadly: the pollution of Sussex rivers

This is the second article in our “Toxic Shock” series, written and researched by Rick Dillon & Ginny Smith, investigating the growing amount of pollution in our county’s waterways. Here the authors focus on sewage discharges in Sussex’s rivers and streams – and reveal the ugly effect this is having on one beautiful and historic harbour

Evening scene on the Ouse. Clouds are reflected in the still water of the river.
Gorgeous but deadly? Above: The River Ouse at Barcombe Mills – one family suffered stomach upsets after swimming there. Photo by: Cressida Jane Murray

Disquiet has been growing over many years about the increasingly polluted state of our local rivers and streams.  Both environmental and angling groups are fighting to raise awareness of the issue, and many of them regularly monitor river water quality.  

Sewage in river killed plants, fish, and even a dog

Speaking off the record, a member of the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust lists the horrifying number of incidents that they have tracked over recent years, many attributable to Southern Water, including: 

  • a major sewage leak to the Herring Stream, a tributary of the Adur, that caused a significant fish kill; 
  • the release of raw sewage into the Bevern, a major trout stream that runs across Plumpton Plain and into the Ouse, that decimated many water plants and caused the death of a dog. 

Human health hazard

The Rivers Trust member goes on to say that almost all the tributaries of the Ouse, along with the river itself, fail to reach “good” ecological standards as defined by the EU Water Framework Directive.

But this is not just an issue for special interest groups – it has profound implications for human health, and that of the plants and wildlife that depend on the viability of our rivers and streams.  With the increased popularity of wild swimming, more and more people are discovering, to their cost, the adverse effects of swimming in polluted waters.  

UK rivers among the most polluted in Europe

Hanna Prince, who lives in the East Sussex village of Barcombe and often used to spend time with her family at the popular Barcombe Mills stretch of the River Ouse, has recently given up doing so: “We realised that all of us frequently had stomach upsets after swimming in the river,” she says, “and that includes the family dog!

River Action, in a hard-hitting statement on their website, claim that every single river in England and Wales is polluted beyond legal limits. They point out that, as hosts of the COP26 climate conference, the UK is desperate to show leadership on tackling threats to the natural environment, while ignoring the fact that the UK’s rivers are amongst the most polluted in Europe.

Local councillor is Southern Water’s “Irritant-in-Chief”

So what can we as individuals do? In our previous article, we highlighted the work of South Coast Sirens. This time we shine the spotlight on Neil Cleaver, a Wealden District Councillor in Hailsham, who has become, in his area, Southern Water’s Irritant-in-Chief.

The councillor talks of meetings with the company during which technical officers have batted away questions and never provided a straight answer. A study promised after one high-level meeting has not yet been delivered.

It [water full of raw sewage] was a foot deep – children were playing in it

District Councillor Neil Cleaver, Hailsham North West

Cleaver’s interest in the murky world of sewage began shortly after being elected a Lib Dem Councillor in May 2019. A serious leak in July resulted in sewage being pumped into a public road just outside his ward. “It was a foot deep,” he recalls, “children were playing in it.” This was just the first of many such instances.

Above: following heavy rains in Nov 2019, Old Swan Lane in Hailsham was flooded with surface water full of raw sewage.
Photo: Neil Cleaver

Applying cross-party political pressure

Since then, Cleaver has also won over his political opponents – and energised his council – to in his words  “get Southern Water to do something…If I ran a business like them, I’d go bankrupt.”

Privately, he suspects it may be cheaper for them to pay fines than to fix their frequently failing infrastructure that pollutes our waterways and even threatens our homes. But he is determined to “plug on” in the hope of shaming the company into doing the necessary work.

The consequences of doing nothing are worse. New large housing developments – plus the now increasingly unpredictable effects of climate change – are putting unprecedented strain on a system, which in the case of Hailsham was last seriously updated back in the 1960s.

Above: Neil Cleaver, Wealden District Councillor for Hailsham North West, pictured in Summer 2020 in front of the contaminated open pond at a new housing development in Hellingly – for months, including during the entire first Covid lockdown, residents had to endure the vile stench of raw sewage from the pond. Photo credit: Katrina Best

Just over 20 years ago, when Lewes and Uckfield suffered massive flooding, sewage backed up out into the streets. People’s homes were awash not just with water, but with human detritus.

Cleaver believes a widespread incident like this could happen again. He sighs. “They’re not putting enough money into infrastructure. This latest two billion pound investment they are planning, it’s nowhere near enough to cover what’s really needed, and I reckon all the money will go into the coastal areas only.”

Historic harbour under threat

You don’t get much more high-profile than Chichester – its harbour a West Sussex beauty spot, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)… and also regularly polluted. Last year saw no fewer than 46 discharges from one Southern Water wastewater treatment works, based on Environment Agency data – campaigners describe the environmental impact as “catastrophic”.

The CEO of Southern Water, Ian McAulay, was invited to see for himself last month at what was labelled a ‘water summit’ to discuss the environmental challenges facing Chichester Harbour following its SSSI rating being downgraded by Natural England to “unfavourable declining” condition. McAulay and other senior executives from Southern Water saw first hand the explosion of algal growth smothering the shoreline, a key indicator of nutrient-rich pollution from farm run-offs and of course, those sewage discharges.

John Nelson, chairman of the Chichester Harbour Trust, believes that, bit by bit, the historic harbour is being destroyed. He said: “I cannot stress enough the immediacy of the ecological decline we are witnessing so clearly and the need for urgent short-term measures to save the harbour.”

NEXT UP: Part 3 of our “Toxic Shock” series… PROFITS FROM POLLUTION: Who owns Southern Water, why it matters and what will the politicians do?

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