A warning that this report contains images of sewage and human waste
The author of a report into pollution in a river that runs through one of Newcastle’s most popular parks has told ITV News the amounts of raw sewage found in it following rainfall poses a “significant health risk” to people “wading or splashing around” in the river.
Professor David Werner and his team from Newcastle University took 40 samples from eight locations on the river in 2021, including the section that flows through the popular Jesmond Dene.
Analysing the DNA of the samples, they found that water discharged from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) contained a high concentration of faecal bacteria - about 100 times higher than the acceptable standard for bathing water.
From the data, they discovered 72-77 per cent of bacteria found in the river after heavy rainfall came from sewage discharges. It is the first time a study has directly linked river bacteria levels to raw sewage discharges, despite claims from some water companies that they have minimal effect on water quality.
Professor Werner told ITV News: “When it rains, what we discovered is that 70 to 80 per cent of all bacteria in the river are from the sewer system… if you get exposed to faecal bacteria, there’s a risk of gastro-intestinal disease, so that’s typically diarrhoea, and conditions are very changeable, but if you are in the river at the wrong time, the concentrations are at the level that give me reason to be concerned about the health implications.”
Professor Werner is calling on the authorities to carry out regular testing of the water quality in the Ouseburn, for real-time alerts to be sent to mobile phones and warning signs erected at Jesmond Dene when there is a risk of sewage in the river.
Northumbrian Water acknowledged there is an ongoing issue and said “improvements have been made to enhance water quality” and “more are planned”.
Newcastle City Council said the findings of the report are “concerning” and they are “committed to developing a plan to restore the river back to health”.
Urban Green who manages Jesmond Dene said, in light of the report, it will add to its notice boards information that the “Ouseburn doesn’t currently meet bathing water standards”.
Sewer Overflow Upgrades Shelved
The upgrading of the sewage system infrastructure is one way to reduce sewage pollution in our rivers.
The Northumberland Rivers Trust has found that Northumbrian Water has shelved 18 out of 20 planned upgrades of its CSOs into Northumberland waterways and rivers, which were supposed to be carried out between 2025-30.
This comes despite £10 billion worth of investment for water companies to improve sewage overflows over the next seven years, in what has been described as “the biggest modernisation of sewers since the Victorian era”.
By analysing data from the past three years, the Trust found those 18 CSOs have spilt sewage 3,460 times between 2020-23, averaging 8,896 hours of spills a year.
The Trust said, without the upgrades, the same level of spills will continue until at least 2030.
“What it effectively means is that over the next five years, (from the data) you could expect a sewage incident every minute of every day for at least five years, possibly up to six and a half years, somewhere in Northumberland," Steve Lowe, from the Northumberland Rivers Trust, explained.
"An upgrade could include storage. So that water, instead of coming straight out, would actually be stored somewhere, go through the treatment plant and then be discharged once it’s been dealt with.”
He also called for more prosecutions when pollution incidents are reported and said the Environment Agency needs to respond to more incidents than it currently does.
He added: “We need to see some prosecutions, you know, at the moment they will only investigate if there is dead fish, but if you’ve got a dead river, you’re never going to get a dead fish are you?”
Northumbrian Water told ITV News that the investment plans for 2025-30 are not yet finalised and a spokesperson said: “We take full responsibility for any impact caused by our assets and are committed to playing our part in making sure that we are not causing harm to our rivers and seas.
“We work in close partnerships with local authorities and community groups to better understand any issues we may be causing, which helps us to target investment.
“And we are investing over £80m to reduce our use of storm overflows and to upgrade our wastewater network between 2020 and 2025. This will be followed by a further £1.7 billion from 2025 to 2030 in a massive environmental programme to stop storm overflow spills and help improve the environment.”
The Environment Agency said it is holding the water industry to account “on a scale never seen before”. It said CSOs should only be used under “strict permit conditions” and that they take “tough action” against rule breakers.
The Agency added it is getting more officers, more investment and increasing compliance checks, which should lead to “tougher enforcement” and “tighter regulation”.
Treating the Tyne like an ‘open sewer’
One group of bathers in Northumberland have taken matters into their own hands. The Wylam Clean Tyne Group put in an application for Bathing Water Status, but it was rejected by Defra in February 2023.
They carried out water quality testing in the River Tyne and found the results “shocking”.
Their results found the level of gut bacteria pollution at times was nearly 15 times above the poor water quality threshold.
Dr Stephen Westgarth, who also fishes in the river, told ITV News: “What we’re looking for is a bacterial count of below 900 e.coli in 100ml. When the water was lower, at 53cm, we found well below that, but when the water was a little bit higher, so about two feet up from today, at 87cm, the 900 safety limit was well exceeded. It was 13,200 e.coli in 100ml, which is obviously grossly polluted.
“It made me think, well, do I really want to swim in the river? Do I really want to catch or eat any fish that come from the river? I just think in this day and age, with a climate crisis and with supposedly a modern developed country, we are treating the river as an open sewer and that is completely unacceptable.”
Northumbrian Water said it will work with the Wylam group to identify sources of the sewage, which they said could include “agriculture and industry”.
On pollution at both the River Tyne at Wylam and the River Ouseburn, the Environment Agency said neither are designated as having a “bathing water status”, but added any pollution should be reported to them.
Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...