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Sewage discharges into New Forest rivers (Dec 2020 update)

Russ writes:

On 26 Aug 2020, we alerted the New Forest community to the issue (and potential ecological impacts) of regular sewage discharges into New Forest rivers, particularly the upper reaches of the Beaulieu River. The original blog and some of the resulting coverage in national and local media can be accessed via the links below - we even got a retweet from ardent clean rivers campaigner Feargal Sharkey!

This update provides additional information and context, including some encouraging signs that this issue is now getting significant public exposure and political attention. At a national level, further media exposures regarding the appalling state of our rivers have forced Defra into developing a new taskforce to reduce sewage discharge into our rivers and seas (see links below).

In addition, the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Philip Dunne MP, has proposed a Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill that is due to be debated in Parliament on 15 Jan 2021. This is a Private Members Bill that proposes a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into rivers and other inland waters. Further details here:

Within the New Forest, local individuals and organisations (including the New Forest Association) have been contacting their MPs to ask them to support the Bill. I have seen a very positive response to these letters from Julian Lewis MP, who has already contacted the Environment Secretary, George Eustice, urging him to adopt the measures set out in the proposed legislation; the response that I’ve seen from Desmond Swayne MP was more ambiguous and failed to acknowledge the local issues in the New Forest or clear support for the Bill, so perhaps more letters from his constituents are needed! A letter was recently also published in the Lymington Times by Peter Frost (former Chairman of the New Forest Association), highlighting the Bill and encouraging local people to provide their support.

Southern Water is developing a long-term Drainage and Wastewater Management Plan for the New Forest catchment, and delivered an initial workshop on 23 Sept that brought together key New Forest stakeholders, including the hosts of the New Forest Catchment Partnership: the New Forest National Park Authority and the Freshwater Habitats Trust. This suggests a willingness on the part of Southern Water to be more open and engaging in its future planning, and to recognise the importance of reducing impacts on the sensitive New Forest environment. Some of the information made available as part of the workshop is very informative, for example Southern Water is responsible for 16 wastewater treatment works and 1142 km of sewers within the New Forest catchment, which service 92% of the local population. Further details at the link below:

Homing in on the Beaulieu River, Environment Agency data (accessed via the link below) have revealed a recent deterioration in water quality and a concurrent decrease in the invertebrate community. Further monitoring is now being undertaken to investigate the drivers of this deterioration.

To support this monitoring, Wild New Forest recently received a series of water testing kits to measure nitrate and phosphate levels in the upper reaches of the Beaulieu River – these kits were generously provided by colleagues at the Freshwater Habitats Trust (FHT). The first sampling was undertaken on 21 December close to the discharge site at the Lyndhurst works, following a period of heavy rainfall when it was clear from visual inspection that discharges were in progress (see images below).

Photo taken on 21 Dec 2020, showing an emergency discharge (or combined sewer overflow) into the Beaulieu River, emanating from the nearby Lyndhurst Wastewater Treatment Works; the pallid grey-brown colour of the discharge in the background contrasts with the natural peaty brown colour of the stream in the foreground.

We will provide a further update here in early 2021, once a second round of monitoring has been completed and the results have been discussed with the FHT. We should also know the outcome of the second reading of the Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill by that time. There is still lots of work to do, but there does now appear to be some momentum around this issue. And encouragingly, a community initiative in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, has recently led to a stretch of the River Wharfe being designated as England’s first riverine bathing site, which will force the Environment Agency to undertake more intensive monitoring and to take action if pollution incidents persist. So people power can sometimes pay off!

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