Southern Water and sewage: What you need to know
There’s rightly been massive outrage at Southern Water’s recent large-scale discharging of sewage off our coasts. So why’s it happening and what can we as residents do to stop it? Matthew Bird, Cabinet Member for Sustainability at Lewes District Council, offers some answers
1 Southern Water and other water companies seem to be dumping more sewage at sea? For example, it’s been reported that every single beach between Brighton and Hastings has been marred by waste this summer. Why?
There are many reasons for this, some of which are known and some of which we can only guess at. The first thing to say is that we are more aware of the frequency of discharges because we are now able to see when they have taken place via Southern Water’s own Beachbuoy map and also on the Surfers Against Sewage Map. When a discharge occurs from an outflow, it is not just sewage. In fact the majority of the discharge is surface run off – from fields, roads, roofs etc and this is likely to occur when there is heavier rain and storms.
Because of climate change we are getting more intense and frequent rainfall and also after prolonged dry periods it is likely that more surface run off will occur after less intense rainfall. In reality it seems that discharges are occurring after even light rain and it is harder to understand why this should be the case: 1,949 discharges occurred in the 2021 bathing season and what is worrying is that recent research has suggested that not all discharges are being monitored so the true figure could be even higher.
At Lewes District Council we have put two water quality motions to Council to date requiring Southern Water and the Environment Agency to explain what they are doing to limit discharges.
2 Is it legal for water companies to do this?
It is legal for Southern Water to discharge combined surface water and sewage after storms and when the outdated sewer systems cannot cope with the excess flows. The storm overflow valves work automatically to release excess flows when the drains cannot cope. The Environment Agency sets the permit limits for when this is supposed to occur.
3 Is Southern Water taking any measures to limit sewage dumping?
Yes, they are and they have plans to invest approx. £2 billion in improvements by 2025. They are also consulting on their Drainage and Wastewater Management Plans which propose a range of infrastructure improvements and surface water initiatives. Southern Water received a £91 million fine in 2021 for pollution failings between 2010 and 2015. They need to step up the level of investment and action significantly to reduce the unacceptable level of discharges currently taking place.
4 Given growing populations and the prospect of heavier floods, what’s the ideal long-term solution – and is there any sign of this happening?
There is an urgent need for massive investment in water infrastructure. There also needs to be a much bigger emphasis on preventing surface run off through nature-based solutions and sustainable urban drainage. This involves more permeable and fewer paved surfaces. There needs to be more linking with other agencies such as Highways to limit surface water run off. The Government and the Environment Agency needs to be more rigorous and robust in penalising offences that have taken place and the legislation needs to be tougher. Short of nationalisation I believe the supply of water and treatment of wastewater needs to be tackled together. It makes no sense to me to have different parts of the water process being managed in different ways by different companies. Finally, I think there needs to be a pause on all new development that links to a drainage system that can’t cope until that system is updated.
5 What can we do as customers and residents to address the situation?
We can let the water companies know how we feel both directly and through our elected politicians. Southern Water is consulting on its first Drainage & Wastewater Management Plan (DWMP). This will determine how much investment it will make in its sewerage network in the period 2025-2030. You can have your say here (deadline for comments is midnight, Monday 5 September).
Practically we can look at how we limit our water use and reduce the flow from our properties and whether we are happy to pay for wastewater treatment that currently does not do what it should be doing.
The River Festival on September 25 at the Railway Land has invited Southern Water and the Environment Agency as part of the River Panel to explain their approach and answer questions on these issues.