How clean is our sea? Watersports enthusiasts fear sewage is affecting health

Video report by ITV News Meridian's Sally Simmonds

The amount of raw sewage dumped into our rivers and seas has increased by nearly 40% in one year, according to Environment Agency figures.

It is legal to do so after heavy rainfall, but the Environment Agency accepts that climate change and an increase in population are making raw sewage discharges more frequent.

Watersports enthusiasts worry it's affecting their heath.

Southern Water, who are responsible for water quality along the south coast, says the situation is improving.

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Windsurfers at Bracklesham Bay in West Sussex are just some of the 8 million on the water this year, twice as many as before the pandemic according to the Royal Yachting Association.

Windsurf Coach Simon Bornhoft said: "I've windsurfed along the South Coast for over 30 years, and especially over the last 18 months, with lockdown coming through and everything, there's been a huge increase in the number of people using the water, particularly windsurfers but also a lot of other watersport users."

But there is now growing concern over the water quality, with 'brown foam' appearing across the water.

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Mike Owens from Hayling Sewage Watch is on a mission to find out what is in the water off his local beach at Hayling.

He has tested the water independently, because the Environment Agency samples the water just five times a year.

"We needed to know, to make the link unequivocal between the discharges and sickness, diarrhoea that sort of stuff, it's early days.

"We've made some pretty nasty measurements, which, people were still sat on the beaches with the blue flags flying and the water quality is officially unacceptable."

Through his social media group, Mike warns of storm water discharges and asks Southern Water to quantify how much is released.

Mike said: "It's not Southern Water's fault, they get a lot of flack from people like me and others, but the reality is that they're just doing what they can get away with and that has to stop."

Portsmouth University is looking at solutions to ease the strain on our ancient sewers, such as separating solids for waste collection.

Peter Cruddas from the university said: "If we can come up with waterless toilets we will use less water which means we need  take less water out of the environment and we'll be putting less sewage back into the environment so we'll be creating less pollution as well.

"I think it's about trying to get to the point of making that concept clear enough that people can really engage with it and move forward."

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Southern Water has introduced a new monitoring system they call Beach Buoy so that you can find out where a plant has discharged.

The company says it invests £5m a week, and are trying to be more transparent with water users.

John Penicud, Head of Wastewater Treatment & Maintenance at Southern Water said: "I think we know that there's going to be many solutions to this. It isn't just about building bigger storm tanks or building more treatment capacity.

"It's also things like sustainable urban drainage systems. So instead of having large paved areas where the water just runs off into the drains, we can have permeable membranes which absorb the water."

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: "Storm overflows are designed to discharge diluted sewage to rivers or the sea at times of heavy rainfall to prevent it backing up into homes and streets. But a growing population and climate change means they will discharge more often.

"The Environment Agency is working actively with the water companies to ensure overflows are properly controlled and the harm they do to the environment stopped.

"Increased monitoring and reporting of storm overflows is part of the solution. It means everyone can see exactly what is happening, and will help drive the improvements and future investment that we all want to see, with £1.1billion of investment already planned for the next four years.

"Monitoring of the sewerage network has increased 14-fold in the last five years - from 800 overflows monitored in 2016 to more than 12,000 in 2020. In the next four years water companies will undertake 800 investigations and 798 improvement schemes to storm overflows. The Storm Overflows Taskforce is also looking into further ways that we can reduce the harm from these overflows."