The beauty of the Sussex countryside is much admired. But it also a land of floods and widespread pollution, a lot of it caused by mismanagement of our natural resources. Take the Lewes area: in times of heavy rain the 35 major sewage treatment works beside the River Ouse cannot always cope, and effluent and waste water spill into the river and its tributaries.
If the flow into a sewage works exceeds seven times the dry weather flow (DWF), a water company is deemed to have consent to spill into watercourses in order to protect homes from contaminated flooding. These combined sewage overflows (CSOs) result in our rivers being charged with pathogenic bacteria and viruses. And in storm conditions, all treatment works are permitted to spill untreated effluent.
Sewage discharges on a weekly basis
This is nothing new. Southern Water was fined £4,000 plus £845 costs for allowing sewage to enter the Bevern stream, as early as June 2008, according to newsletters published at the time by the then Sussex Ouse Conservation Society. In 2017 the CSOs at Barcombe resulted in 64 discharges – more than once a week. In 2018 there were 98 incidents covering a total of 635 hours. That was nearly twice a week, for a procedure that is only supposed to be carried out during “exceptional rainfall”.
The risk of pollution is not just from harmful bacteria and solid waste but from dissolved nitrates, phosphates and other dangerous chemicals. On many occasions large quantities of fish have been found dead in the river.
There are frequent, undocumented, reports of people, especially children, swimming or falling off paddle boards and becoming ill with dysentery and earlier this year, there was a warning about swimming in rivers. This month people were warned not to swim in the sea along the Sussex coast because of the outpouring of sewage.
Nice river … 60% of it effluent
The concentration of chemicals in our rivers is exacerbated by the need to extract so much water for human consumption. The resulting low flows are often inadequate to dilute the sewage. In summertime, about 60% of the river water at Barcombe Mills is sewage effluent – so bad it is then extracted and cleaned to provide potable water.
Chalk streams like the Bevern are priority habitats in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Although still important breeding sites for sea trout and several other specialist species, there are now far fewer fish than in the past. A prime reason is the ever increasing chronic pollution from sewage effluents, agricultural sources and phosphates from detergents.
Storm events, intensive agricultural practices and high faecal loads are increasingly likely to occur, with resulting unpleasant odours, risk of infection and gross pollution, according to SOCS (now part of the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust) in 2009. Now, 13 years on, the Trust says the ecological integrity of the Bevern, which flows through the site of a proposed new town at East Chiltington, is on a knife edge. Any further reduction in its water supply could reduce it to a stinking ditch.
Cleaner bathing waters … in Europe
The result is that the Ouse is well below the standards set out in the EU Water Framework Directive (WFD), which aimed to bring all European water bodies up to ‘good’ by 2015. While the directive was retained by the UK after Brexit, the government has yet to meet its obligations and produce a plan.
Most other European countries have designated large numbers of freshwater inland sites under the Bathing Water Directive, which covers both coastal and inland waters. In 2020, campaigners succeeded in getting the first bathing site in England designated, along the River Wharfe at Ilkley, Yorkshire. A second river bathing spot was designated in April 2022 on the Mill Stream at Port Meadow, Wolvercote, Oxford.
In Lewes, an application to designate a section of the Ouse for bathing has seemingly disappeared into the ether. But although the river has not yet officially passed the necessary ecological tests, people still swim and paddle there, heedless of the risks.
In Croatia, on a sailing holiday, I noticed how pure the water in the rivers was there. You could clearly see the riverbed of deep water and the fish swimming by. Croatia, which is smaller than England both in size and wealth, has 41 designated inland bathing waters.
Further pressure on treatment works
Back in Sussex, planned housebuilding will further increase the sewage load beyond the capability of the treatment works. This can only add to the pollution and worsen the ecological status of the Ouse catchment and the risks to people’s health.
Something needs to be done before our beautiful county, celebrated by Rudyard Kipling as Sussex by the Sea, earns a less welcome reputation: something like Sewage by the Sea.
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