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Revealed: How often sewage is discharged into our rivers and the sea

PUBLISHED: 07:32 06 October 2020 | UPDATED: 16:15 06 October 2020

An aerial photo of Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, taken from a drone by Mark Frary. Picture: Mark Frary

An aerial photo of Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, taken from a drone by Mark Frary. Picture: Mark Frary

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Sewage was poured into Norfolk’s rivers and coastal waters hundreds of times last year.

This map put together by the Rivers Trust shows the number of times storm drains were used to discharge waste directly into rivers and the sea in 2019. The bigger the circle, the more discharges. Image: Rivers TrustThis map put together by the Rivers Trust shows the number of times storm drains were used to discharge waste directly into rivers and the sea in 2019. The bigger the circle, the more discharges. Image: Rivers Trust

Figures from charity, the Rivers Trust, show the Environment Agency let Anglian Water use storm drains to discharge water - which includes human waste, run-off from land and rainwater - more than 1,500 times in Norfolk in 2019.

Anglian Water said most of these discharges would have been rainwater and it was investing to improve water quality.

The Environment Agency said the drains were used as “relief valves” to prevent flooding during storms. If the drains were not used, they said, sewage could back up into people’s homes.

But the number of times the water companies are using overflow drains has sparked fears about water pollution.

The release of human waste into rivers is only meant to be used in “exceptional circumstances”, the European Court of Justice has ruled.

But water companies across the country used the storm drains 200,000 times last year, the Guardian reported.

In the east of England, the area covered by Anglian Water, they were used 10,347 times.

The rivers they were used most frequently in were the Wensum and Yare in Norwich and at the sewage treatment works on the River Ant near Ludham.

Lisa Dawson said she had become ill from surfing at Cromer. Photo: Lisa DawsonLisa Dawson said she had become ill from surfing at Cromer. Photo: Lisa Dawson

A report last month showed more than 40 rivers and waterways in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex were rated “poor” or “bad” for pollution by the Environment Agency.

Government data also shows there are regular warnings about water pollution at Norfolk’s coastal resorts, which surfers claim is causing them to get ill, particularly when storm drains are used after heavy rain.

Lisa Dawson, from Aylsham, who has been surfing at Cromer for the last year, said she has had eye and ear infections as well as stomach problems.

The 45-year old now receives alerts from an organisation called Surfers Against Sewage which tell her if storm drains have been used in the last 48 hours.

Ben Radley says he has become ill several times surfing after heavy rain in north Norfolk and puts it down to sewage being discharged into the sea from storm drains. He is pictured with daughter Evie, 3, and wife Gemma. Photo: Ben RadleyBen Radley says he has become ill several times surfing after heavy rain in north Norfolk and puts it down to sewage being discharged into the sea from storm drains. He is pictured with daughter Evie, 3, and wife Gemma. Photo: Ben Radley

There are regular alerts for the East Anglia coast, including Hunstanton, Heacham, Southwold and Lowestoft last week. The week before that there was an alert for Cromer.

“I just cannot believe more people don’t think this is dangerous and unacceptable,” Mrs Dawson said. “I have had one really bad eye infection that ended with me going to hospital. Until recently I was not even aware that there was sewage being discharged here.”

Ben Radley, 35, from Matlaske, who has been surfing in Norfolk for 14 years, said: “I know from experience not to go in the sea when we’ve had heavy rain.

“I’ve had sickness and diarrhoea and at one point I was off work for two weeks. That was in 2014 and still now I have stomach issues.

“When you surf you can smell it sometimes in the water.

“People don’t know or understand what is going on.”

The figures from the Rivers Trust show the storm drain at West Runton was used 24 times last year, while at Sheringham it was used less, just three times.

A storm drain at Cromer  was used 356 times by Anglian Water last year, with permission from the Environment Agency. Photo: iwitness/Lesley BuckleyA storm drain at Cromer was used 356 times by Anglian Water last year, with permission from the Environment Agency. Photo: iwitness/Lesley Buckley

Explore the map here

Pictures of dark brown liquid flowing into the sea at Sheringham in August sparked alarm.

But Environment Agency officers at the scene said it was not sewage but run-off from heavy rainfall.

The sewage treatment works on Middleton Lane in Cromer was used 356 times - the highest figure of any drain in Norfolk.

There were 18 warnings about water quality at Wells beach over the summer. Picture: Ian BurtThere were 18 warnings about water quality at Wells beach over the summer. Picture: Ian Burt

In response, Anglian Water said it was double checking the data as it may be “over reporting” spills.

An Anglian Water spokesman added: “Storm overflows play a vital role in our combined wastewater network systems as they work like pressure release valves to protect homes and businesses from flooding during periods of extreme rainfall. Because of the job they do, the majority of what comes out is rainwater, not sewage.

“The number of customers at risk from flooding due to overloaded sewers has almost halved in the last five years, because of water company investment.”

They added that over the next five years they were investing £811m, including on improving river water quality.

“Ours is the largest plan of any water company,” they said.

An Environment Agency spokesman said: “In 2019 the monitored storm overflows were in operation for 3pc of the year – a figure that water companies are working to reduce with our support.

“We have secured a more robust and consistent approach for water and sewerage companies to monitor spills from both inland and coastal storm overflows.”

•How clean are our seas?

Water quality at our coastal resorts is measured from May to October by the Environment Agency.

This data shows there were 18 pollution warnings at one of Norfolk’s most iconic beaches, Wells, this summer.

In West Norfolk, there were 60 warnings to not swim at Hunstanton and Heacham, with no warnings in place on 350 occasions.

Water quality at Wells, Hunstanton and Heacham was given the lowest rating of “sufficient” by the Environment Agency, based on samples taken from 2016 to 2019.

Beaches at Sheringham, West Runton, East Runton and Cromer were all given the highest rating of “excellent”.

Water at Mundesley, Sea Palling, Hemsby, Great Yarmouth, Gorleston and Caister were also rated excellent, while Lowestoft was rated “good”. There were no warnings at these beaches about going into the water over the summer.

The data is only collected during spring and summer.

•What about rivers?

Data released by the Environment Agency shows only 14pc of the 4,600 rivers, lakes and other waterways assessed are of “good” condition.

In the agency’s “Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk” region, more than 40 rivers and lakes were given an overall “poor” or “bad” ecology rating – with sewage discharge, poor livestock management and poor nutrient management from farms cited among the main causes, along with transport drainage, urbanisation and water abstraction.

Rivers rated “poor” include parts of the Blackwater, Tiffey, Chet and Bure, while “poor” broads include Barton Broad, Hoveton Great Broad, Ranworth Broad, Ormesby Broad and Filby Broad.

Two Norfolk watercourses fell into the lowest category of “bad”: The Binham tributary running into the River Stiffkey, and Fritton Lake.

The data shows little improvement since 2016 when the last data was published, despite government promises that 75pc of English rivers would be rated “good” by 2027.


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