Urgent advice: half-term and data on water quality is “dodgy”

South West Water challenged on ‘missing’ data

Environment campaigner Feargal Sharkey has challenged South West Water over what he claimed was missing data about sewage discharges around the Devon coast. Mr Sharkey tweeted a copy of a map showing where storm overflows had been used at the weekend, and also where no information was available.

Edward Oldfield www.devonlive.com

The former lead singer with the 70s and 80s punk band The Undertones asked South West Water why it had “stopped supplying the data”. The keen fly fisherman has in recent years been an outspoken campaigner against the pollution of the UK’s waterways.

The map he used is published by Surfers Against Sewage and gives real-time updates on water quality around the coast. It relies on data provided by the water companies on the activation of combined sewer overflows, and water quality analysis from the Environment Agency, but that only operates from May to September.

Companies are legally allowed to release a mixture of raw sewage and rainwater into the sea following exceptionally heavy rain. That is to prevent the networking backing up to cause flooding at roads, homes and businesses. Downpours can also wash animal waste and fertiliser into rivers and seas, causing a pollution risk.

One Tuesday morning, the Surfers Against Sewage map showed an ‘out-of-season’ message for the places where information provided by the Environment Agency only during the summer season was not available. Other locations showed a message that sewer systems are under maintenance and real-time alerts have been temporarily disabled. In Devon, they were Sidmouth Town, Budleigh Salterton, Dawlish Coryton Cove, Paignton Preston Sands, and Shoalstone Beach.

Meanwhile there were pollution alerts listed at Exmouth, Meadfoot at Torquay and Goodrington at Paignton, saying that storm sewage had been discharged within the last 48 hours. South West Water said it issued precautionary alerts of a possible temporary impact on bathing water quality at those locations on Sunday. That was due to heavy localised rainfall which could trigger a storm overflow, and the alerts were lifted on Monday.

Enlarged view of South West peninsular below, showing many red dots and “grayed out, info unavailable” ones particularly on the South Coast. Link to tweet here

The Environment Agency publishes its ‘Swimfo’ map updated with water quality information from designated bathing waters around the coast between May and September. It provides weekly water quality assessments and daily pollution forecasts for some locations during that period.

South West Water said its BeachLive service issues precautionary alerts when a storm overflow might temporarily impact bathing water quality, and it operates all year round with alerts issued in near real-time. It supplies information to the Safer Seas & Rivers Service, which provides the map on the Surfers Against Sewage website and a mobile phone app.

South West Water said in a statement: “Our BeachLive alerts are being sent out as normal. The third party app receives information from two sources, BeachLive and the Environment Agency’s Pollution Risk Forecast (PRF) system, which looks at rainfall over the beach catchment, along with wind and tidal data. The EA’s PRF system only operates between 1 May and 30 September and hence the app will show out of season advice for those beaches that only receive warnings from the EA PRF system.”

The statement added: “Monitors at Sidmouth Town, Dawlish Coryton Cove, Paignton Preston Sands and Shoalstone are currently under maintenance due to suspected signalling issues. We are investigating these assets and will ensure they are back online as soon as possible. This does not mean that BeachLive warnings for those beaches will not be issued. Where a beach has more than one asset that might affect its water quality then, if any asset not in maintenance mode has a spill, a warning would still be issued.”

A South West Water spokesperson said: “Precautionary alerts were raised at Exmouth, Meadfoot and Goodrington on Sunday to notify that there could have been a temporary impact to bathing water quality, due to heavy, localised rainfall which can cause our storm overflows to trigger. These alerts were lifted on Monday.

“South West Water’s largest environmental investment programme in 15 years, WaterFit, is now well underway, focused on delivering benefits for customers, communities and the environment. Through WaterFit we will dramatically reduce our use of storm overflows, reduce and then remove our impact on river water quality by 2030 and maintain our excellent bathing water standards all year round.”

The discharge of raw sewage into rivers and seas hit the headlines last year after the government rejected a plan from the House of Lords to end storm overflows. The government voted down an amendment to the Environment Bill, then did a U-turn after an outcry and announced it will tighten the law to put a legal duty on water firms to reduce the harm from storm overflows.

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