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A Dorset river is "ecologically dead" as a direct result of sewage spills, campaigners say.
The River Lim flows through the seaside town of Lyme Regis and historically had trout, eels, invertebrates and even kingfishers live and access its waters.
However, local residents and conservationists have reported “a layer of brown sludge” coating its surface this year.
It follows 2,200 hours of sewage spills discharged into the river by South West Water (SWW) in 2022 - more than triple the amount in the previous year.
That's according to Environment Agency data, and the River Lim Action Group was set up to campaign against this pollution.
Campaigners say they tested the river water and found it to contain "high levels" of E.coli.
Vicki Elcoate, a member of the campaign group, said that she was first alerted to the problem when Dorset Council installed signage warning people not to enter the water.
“A lot of us were concerned about it and there were no plans to clear it”, she said.
"We decided to monitor it with the Westcountry Rivers Trust. They provided tips and indicators of pollution.
"We were doing that for a few months, spoke to Environment Agency and we found out through our own work that the water quality was really poor and really polluted at all times.”
Samples taken by the group found "consistently high levels of E.coli" and they urged action by South West Water and Environment Agency.
Tests by Environment Agency in March found 27,200 units of harmful E. coli were found in 100ml of water.
Swimming beaches should not exceed 88 units per 100ml and beaches not designated for bathing should not exceed 406 units per 100ml.
Vicki said the main cause of the pollution appears to be nearly 2,200 hours of sewage spills last year coming out of the six combined sewer overflows (CSOs) on the Lim.
The year before saw 680 hours and 376 hours in 2020.
Another cause is illegal discharging from misconnections and leaking pipes, which Vicki feels can be solved by South West Water reinvesting money into fixing.
She added that their group has worked with South West Water in order to identify the problems and pleaded with them to fix them as soon as possible.
“It is a small river and iconic. It is highly visible to thousands of people, tourists and people passing by," Vicki remarked.
“Everybody can see what’s going on and our problems are fixable. It is literally a problem with sewage."
She added: “I have spoken to residents who have lived here far longer than me and they talk about how it had trout, eels, kingfishers, with water weed and just flowing clear water.
"Now you just see a brown layer in the river. In that, invertebrates can’t survive and food chains cannot exist in the river.
"We get the occasional fish or eels. This could be solved - if you fix the issue the wildlife will come back.”
South West Water - which covers Devon, Cornwall and parts of Dorset - has been heavily criticised for its handling of sewage pollution.
Susan Davy, CEO of the Pennon Group, which owns South West Water gave up on her six-figure bonus amid public anger over sewage pollution in rivers and seas.
South West Water has told campaigners that they aim to carry out repairs to its pipes in 2025, but Vicki fears this is not soon enough.
River Lim Action Group also hope action on River Lim will also improve the water quality at Church Cliff Beach as they campaign to get it re-designated as a bathing beach.
She said: “We are asking why and we are paying all this money, why can’t they invest that money as much as possible. It would fix the river and improve things earlier.
"They just simply need to sort it out. They have the engineers. Please sort it out in the next two years and we will have our river back.”
South West Water say it will continue to work with the action group to identify problems with the pipes and repeated its goal to reduce its impact on rivers by one-third by 2025.
A spokeswoman said: “We recognise the knowledge and passion in our community and that’s why we work with groups such as the River Lim Action Group.
“We support through attending regular meetings with them, Dorset Council, Lyme Regis town council and the Environment Agency, openly sharing our WaterFit plans to reduce the impact of our storm overflows, responding to their queries and including them in our stakeholder forum.
"We continue to work with The River Lim Group and have already progressed work to understand network health in the area and identify misconnections in the town.
"We have also worked with local businesses on the importance of safe disposal of fats, oils and grease, which can cause blockages in our network.
“We are in contact with the Group and have agreed we will confirm next steps with further work in the coming days.”
The Environment Agency said it had engaged with South West Water on how to improve the quality of the River Lim, which in turn will improve bathing water.
It has also assisted with River Lim Action Group and conducted an invertebrate survey of the River Lim a few months ago “which didn’t raise any significant problems.”
An Environment Agency spokesman said: “South West Water (SWW) is required by the Environment Agency to explore possible options to get Lyme Regis Front Beach bathing water to achieve a robust ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’ classification.
"Investigations were undertaken in 2021 and 2022 and reported to the EA in September 2022.
“These concluded that removal of Combined Sewer Overflow (CSOs) spills would contribute to improved bathing water classification, but the most beneficial interventions are likely to be land management interventions and ongoing vigilance with private sewer misconnections.
"The proposal for delivery by March 2030 is that all CSOs discharging into the River Lim be improved to either two or three significant storm overflow discharges per bathing season.”
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