Anger at sewage warning for secluded Devon beach

Visitors to a Devon beach hit by a sewage pollution warning say water companies should invest more to cut storm overflows. There was anger and dismay at Holcombe Beach, between Teignmouth and Dawlish, with one woman saying she had let her young child swim in the sea, but told her not to put her head underwater.

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com 

A pebble-filled brook runs across the sand into the sea at the picturesque cove, which is crossed by the stone-built legs of a viaduct carrying the main railway line. The beach, which has a cafe at the bottom of a steep, narrow road, is popular with surfers, local people and holidaymakers. It has an entrance via a set of steps to the sea wall which carries the railway, and walkers can use the path alongside the tracks to reach Teignmouth.

Half-way up the hill to the village is a small brick-built South West Water building where a combined storm overflow can empty a mixture of rainwater and untreated sewage into the stream, if a heavy downpour threatens to overwhelm the system. On Thursday morning, a pollution alert was issued for the beach. It warned that storm sewage had been discharged from a sewer overflow within the previous 48 hours. The secluded beach was one of five along the south Devon coast with an alert still in place on Thursday afternoon, advising people not to go into the sea.

Walkers passing the South West Water hut on Smugglers’ Lane could detect a musty smell in the air where the brook runs alongside, but the water appeared to be clear and there was no sign of sewage. However, swimmers have in the past reported seeing human poo floating in the sea while they have been swimming off the beach. People in the area said it appeared South West Water was not investing enough to reduce the storm overflows. Others warned the pollution warnings threatened the reputation of Devon as a clean and safe holiday destination.

Teignmouth-born Sue Taylor has been running the Salty Dog Kiosk at the beach for six years, and knows when the storm overflows are particularly bad, because the pressure from the torrent of sewage and rainwater blows out a steel inspection cover in the road outside. She said: “We have had two months without any rain. Now they have had an hour of rain yesterday, and they are worrying about water quality. So what happens for the rest of the year?”

Sue Taylor, at the Salty Dog Kiosk at Holcombe Beach

Sue Taylor, at the Salty Dog Kiosk at Holcombe Beach (Image: DevonLive/Reach Plc)

She said it appeared there was a lack of investment, with housing developments in the area being connected to the same Victorian infrastructure that was built for Teignmouth and Dawlish 150 years ago. She added: “Why are they not investing their money? Water rates are very high in the South West, among the highest in the country. They are not investing and putting in place new infrastructure to cope with the sewage.”

Ms Taylor said she was concerned about the impact of regular pollution warnings on Devon’s reputation as an environmentally friendly destination for visitors. She said two people that day had told her they had seen the pollution warning for Holcombe on the Safer Seas & Rivers Service phone app. She said: “People come and swim on this beach all year round. If they don’t come and don’t swim here, I lose trade from the business.”

Ms Taylor added: “The beaches are very important to the economy of Teignmouth. We rely on the beach, because that is what people come to Teignmouth for. People who go to the seaside want to know that it’s safe for them to go in the water. They want to know the water is clean, and the environment is good. So many people are more aware these days, and if somewhere doesn’t tick all the boxes, they will go somewhere that does. Teignmouth has got a blue flag for its clean beach, and we need to keep it that way. If it is down to South West Water, they need to pay to make sure they stay that way. They have a responsibility to the public.”

South West Water station in Smugglers' Lane, Holcombe

South West Water station in Smugglers’ Lane, Holcombe (Image: DevonLive/Reach Plc)

James Atkinson, 55, had walked to Holcombe from his home in Dawlish. He said: “The issue is that the water companies are not investing. I think the issue is privatisation, in my view. They know the problems, but they want to wait for it to go away, for public attention to move on.” He added: “I don’t think private water companies invest enough. They have plans, but I think their plans are always a few years behind what is happening. I don’t think they are prepared to take a punt on the future. They are just happy to get away with what they can get away with now.” He suggested the government should provide more public information to tell people about the importance of using less water.

A woman from Teignmouth, visiting the beach with friends, said: “They are a private company, they are a profit-making business, they could invest the money. It boils down to money at the end of the day.” She added: “I think it is pretty sad to see, it is lack of investment by profit-making companies. They are taking the money, they are not investing the money.” She said more should be done to reduce water use in public buildings, including schools, to cut waste and conserve supplies.

The list of Devon beaches with no-swim warnings on Thursday covered Teignmouth Holcombe, Dawlish Town, Exmouth, Sidmouth Town, and Beer. Earlier warnings issued in recent days have ended for Teignmouth Town, Wembury, Goodrington, Paignton, Budleigh Salterton and Saunton in North Devon.

The Environment Agency which monitors designated bathing water also issued precautionary advice not to bathe in the sea at Dawlish and Exmouth. The alerts follow heavy downpours which have triggered storm overflows to discharge untreated sewage mixed with rainwater into the sea. The outflows are legally allowed to prevent pipes which carry a mixture of rainwater and sewage backing up to flood roads, homes and businesses. Downpours can also wash animal waste and fertiliser into rivers and seas, causing a pollution risk.

Holcombe Beach, near Teignmouth

Holcombe Beach, near Teignmouth (Image: DevonLive/Reach Plc)

South West Water, which provides water and sewerage services in Devon, said the Environment Agency’s Pollution Risk Forecast system triggered precautionary alerts when the weather posed a potential risk to water quality. Alerts were also raised in relation to stormwater overflows which may temporarily impact bathing water quality, but they were also precautionary.

A South West Water spokesperson said: “In recent days we have seen heavy localised rainfall which followed the prolonged period of hot and dry weather. As a result, the rain hasn’t been able to permeate into the ground and a significant volume has run into our network, which can cause our storm overflows to trigger. We continue to invest in our network to reduce the use of storm overflows as part of our WaterFit plan.”

The company says its plan will “dramatically reduce our use of storm overflows, maintain our region’s excellent bathing water quality standards all year round and reduce and then remove our impact on river water quality by 2030.” It says storm overflows act as a legal safety valve to prevent sewers becoming overloaded and flooding homes, roads and businesses. South West Water achieved 100 per cent coastal bathing water quality for the first time across 860 miles of coastline earlier this year.

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