Dorset’s River Lim declared ‘ecologically dead’ after sewage spills triple

Locals living alongside a once-idyllic Dorset river have declared it “ecologically dead” after the amount of human waste overflowing into it tripled in less than a year.

Will Humphries, Southwest Correspondent 

The River Lim, which flows into the sea at Lyme Regis, used to be a thriving ecosystem with trout, eels and kingfishers living along its course.

But local residents and conservationists have reported “a layer of brown sludge” coating its surface 2,200 hours of sewage spills were discharged into the river by South West Water (SWW) in 2022, more than triple the amount in the previous year.

Tests found the waterway also has “shocking” levels of E.coli, prompting the local authorities to erect yellow warning signs advising the public to keep out of the water.

A retired freshwater ecologist carried out a recent survey which found there were “barely any” invertebrates in the river. Without mussels, larvae and snails, the bottom of the food chain is cut off, reducing the number of larger species that can survive. Data gathered by the River Trust showed a steep rise in human waste surging into the river from storage tanks at a nearby SWW treatment centre.

Graham Roberts, who worked as a freshwater ecologist for 40 years, described the Lim as “ecologically dead”. He joined the River Lim Action Group two years ago hoping to understand and fix the problem.

Roberts said: “The river is in an absolutely disgusting state. I carried out some baseline surveys to understand what was happening to the wildlife in the river. There were virtually no invertebrates at all in it. In a healthy river you would expect to find hundreds and thousands of shrimps in a three-minute survey. We weren’t finding any at all.

“It has a real knock-on effect on the rest of the animals in the area. There just won’t be enough food. We were lucky enough to have an otter move in recently but I worry that by ingesting the sewage it will become infertile or, in the worst-case scenario, it will die.”

Environment Agency data shows there were nearly 2,200 hours of sewage spills last year coming out of the six combined sewer overflows (CSOs) on the Lim. This compares with 680 hours in 2021 and 376 hours in 2020. Locals believe the increase is due to heavier rainfall and insufficient storage facilities nearby.

Vicki Elcoate, a member of the action group, said: “People who have lived here for decades talk about how they used to see the river full of trout and eels. Kingfishers used to be spotted flying up and down the river among the reeds. Now, there is a layer of brown sludge coating the top of the water and you’re lucky to ever see a fish in there at all.”

Laura Noel, 71, a retired NHS worker, said: “We monitor eight points along the River Lim every month and we keep track of different factors, such as phosphate levels. We started the group after lots of people started noticing horrible smells and the water not looking right.

“We contacted SWW and then the Environment Agency via a hotline to get a team looking into it. That was 18 months ago now. We discovered that SWW is one of the worst-performing water companies in England. Getting information out of them has been really hard, slowly being drip-fed and ultimately getting nowhere.

“There are things we can do to stop this. The main thing is for SWW to invest in a larger storage container at Uplyme. They have to do something — it is increasing so much.”

An Environment Agency report carried out in February analysed the levels of E. coli along the Lim. It said: “The high E. coli results for the surface water outfall at Woodmead Road Bridge confirmed that it was contaminated with faecal bacteria. The survey results clearly demonstrate that under baseflow conditions there is an increase in levels of E.coli in the River Lim as it flows through Lyme Regis.”

A South West Water spokeswoman said: “We are reducing the use of storm overflows and our plan is working but there is more to do. We want everyone to feel confident about water quality and to know that we are serious about reducing the use of storm overflows.

“We’ve installed 100 per cent monitoring on our storm overflows, ahead of target. We are investing significantly to reduce our impact on rivers by one-third by 2025, as we look to ensure we are not the reason for any river failing to meet ecological standards by 2030.”

SSW, which provides sewage services to Devon, Cornwall and small parts of Dorset and Somerset, is being investigated by the water regulator Ofwat, which called the number of storm overflows spilling sewage “shocking”.

The most recent official data on storm overflows discharges, for 2021, showed it was the only wastewater company to have more than 10 per cent of its overflows spilling more than 100 times a year. The figure for SSW was 10.4 per cent. United Utilities, which covers the northwest of England, was the only other company that came close, at 9.5 per cent.

The Times is demanding faster action to improve the country’s waterways. Find out more about the Clean It Up campaign.

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