7 Nov 2009

Another meeting with Wessex Water: panorama's sewage and more

A couple of weeks ago I was in Bath for the Wessex Water Joint Customer Liaison Panel meeting on which I sit on behalf of Stroud District Council - you will see stuff re previous meetings by putting Wessex into the search facility.

Photo: diatoms - read on to see why they are here.

I will come to the four key questions I raised at the meeting in a mo but also wanted to cover some of the other stuff - apols if this is a bit of a ramble but I've been interrupted several times - as always we are made very welcomed at Wessex and the quality of info given is always high with proper presentations on key issues. There is loads discussed and I can't poss cover all like the state of reservoirs, the new standards re customer care, that the 2011 date for private sewers transfer is looking more doubtful as no draft regulations yet, the aim of Wessex to develop a grid (if they are allowed) to ensure better distribution of water supplies when they are under pressure and stuff on the draft Water Management Bill like it's encouragement of SUDs, more legal support for misconnections and better management of surface water.

Panorama programme on sewage

Many of these issues I've discussed here before, one issue that I was particularly interested in was the Bathing Water Quality Standards. Bathing water has certainly improved but a dip in performance last year due to rainfall - recent failures are attributed mainly to agricultural and urban run-off - however there is also the issue of combined sewage overflows.

Some folks might have seen the Panorama programme looking at our dirty beaches - see BBC site here. It is also on Youtube for 4th September - this link might work here. They found that of all the beaches tested for water quality in the UK, 43% present at least a one in 20 chance of getting gastroenteritis after a swim, according to a calculation by the Marine Conservation Society (MCS). They went on to highlight that when sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed by heavy storms, water companies are allowed to employ - combined sewer overflow pipes - or CSOs.

As this blog has noted before there are more than 20,000 CSOs around the UK, all owned and operated by UK water companies. In theory, they are meant to act as safety valves for the system during periods of intense and heavy rainfall. They combine storm water with raw sewage and spill out of CSOs into rivers and eventually into the sea.

It is worth noting that the Environment Agency recommends that people avoid bathing for 24 hours after heavy rain.

As Panorama showed the Good Beach Guide indicates that 45% of the 1,134 beaches they list have a CSO close enough to affect them and that they are spilling more often than they are meant to.

Well I have to say Wessex gave a robust defence of their approach - they note their programme to tackle CSOs that cause problems - and it is certainly true that the Panorama programme was sadly sensational and not giving a fair picture. Wessex claim that the risks are exaggerated - certainly re illness - the figure of one in seven at risk of gastric illness when bathing is a fifteen year old paper - much has changed - yes a risk but not significant enough to go to doctors and even in the control group one in ten had it.

It is true that Climate change is creating a wetter environment meaning CSOs are operating more often while it also adds to the run off from agricultural land. There are many other contributing factors, down to the non-permeable flagstones used on home driveways which are generating concentrated masses of water which are affecting the country’s drainage system and as noted agricultural run-off.

One other factor mentioned is animal fouling - amazingly coliform loads of a starling are equivalent to a human, one cow is equal to 2.8 humans, one pig, 5.7 humans and one sheep 9.5 humans. I do seem to remember in the Bourne stream in Poole a serious issue is all the seagulls doing their business on a bridge over the river that led to the beach.

Anyway the problem stems from the Victorian sewage system which is the basis of the network which combines sewage and surface water.

Here is a quote from an Environment Agency spokesperson: “We want to see the separation of sewage and surface water in future developments, rather than combined sewer overflows, and we are working with farmers to prevent chemicals and manure from running off their land and into the sea. Bathing water samples are collected by us at every one of our 495 designated bathing waters once a week – 20 times during the bathing season. They are then tested at our accredited laboratory within 24 hours and we give the information to councils and local organisations on a weekly basis.”

Indeed the EA while recognising that it was right to raise the issue they were nevertheless so concerned by the programme's bias that they issued a Youtube video - see here - it notes for example that 97 per cent of beaches in England and Wales meet minimum European Bathing Water Standards and that improvements are on-going. Interestingly the EA have also since the programme called for a Cleaner Seas Forum - see here.

Certainly the issue is not as straight forward as Panorama have said but I would like to see more work going into tackling CSOs. We need to get the water out of the sewers rather than just building larger sewage treatment plants. We need to stop the wholesale destruction of trees in urban centres (Trees reduce urban humidity and attenuate rainfall impact). We need Sustainable Urban Drainage systems ("SUDS") a condition of planning applications. I know I've said that a dozen times or more. We also need to see water utilities being statutory consultees on all major planning applications. Beating up water companies is an entertaining blood sport, but remember that they are the tail end Charlie of the impact of new developments: councils approve them, and the utility has an obligation to hook them up to the system: no-one asks the utility if there is enough sewer treatment capacity. They just have to deal with it. We have to plan developments in the context of the ability of the infrastructure to deal with their impact.

The water regulator OFWAT is also answerable here - and indeed I was somewhat baffled why Panorama picked on the EA - The EA does not tell water utilities what to invest in - OFWAT does that. One commentator, not at Wessex, said to me: "well water utilities love huge capex projects like sewage plants, because that's how they make money - the regulator grants them an allowed rate of return (8-9%) every 5 years, when utilities present their forward investment plans, so the more the invest, the more money they make. OFWAT doesn't like that of course, as that rate of return comes out of higher water bills. The EA is largely toothless in this process."

Well if it makes you feel any better, Britain is not the worst off. A recent internal Govt report suggested that only 22% of Italy's coastal water meets the quality stipulations of the EU water and waste water treatment Directive about to come in force. Utilities there are facing billions in fines in consequence.

Anyway I have to say as I noted on this blog a couple of years ago, the very fact that CSOs exist was shocking to me - raw sewage in our waterways and seas is just not right!! Yet with our Victorian sewage system there is little option in many cases until we sort out that infrastructure. Certainly improvements can be made - some of which I've noted - but they will come at a cost. Will folk be prepared to pay? Do others have views on this? I'd welcome more info.

Questions sent before meeting

While Wessex are happy to answer while we are there they ask that questions be sent before the meeting so that more comprehensive answers can be given. Here are the questions I sent ahead of the next meeting (answers in blue):

1. I wonder whether Wessex would consider signing up to the national 10:10 campaign. Stroud District Council is signed up (initiated by Green councillor Fi MacMillan) and so are all Stroud's Green District councillors. Many others like B&Q, Royal Mail, Aviva and Microsoft are also signed up. More info at:
And: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/10-10

They are still considering although their targets are above what 10:10 are seeking to achieve.

2. Would it be possible to have an update on redundancies – the press reported earlier that 200 jobs were at risk?

Just under 200 jobs went and apparently virtually all staff were helped to find new jobs.

3. Is any more news re OFWAT prices? See my previous report on this here.

Early November.

4. Do you have any comments re the Environment Agencys report that only 33% of SW’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters received ‘good’ or ‘high’ ecological status – better than country average but still a very long way from EU targets of 95% getting good or very good by 2015. At current investment would you not agree there is no hope to reach the target? What needs to happen? See my comment on this blog here about no pristine rivers in SW.

I've received a very detailed report on this. In short I do agree with their comments that the investment needed to achieve the standards is required through the agricultural and industrial sectors and increased awareness of the general public rather than the water industry. In terms of investment to achieve good ecological status, many waterbodies fail this target on only one specific element e.g. diatoms, fish or phosphorus. However the standards uses a 'one out all out' technique for determining status so actually the waterbody could be at excellent status for all but one determinand. The main factors preventing waterbodies from achieving good status in the SW are:

• diatoms (a type of algae) c. 60% of waterbodies not at good status for this indicator
• fish c. 55% of waterbodies not at good status for this indicator

• phosphate c. 35% of waterbodies not at good status for this indicator

There are a number of reasons why these levels are so low, which may not be related to the level of recent investment. Firstly, many waterbodies have yet to be monitored for diatoms, so this figure is more of a risk based estimate; also, there is debate as to whether diatoms are an appropriate indicator to represent the biological response to eutrophication. Further work is needed in both of these areas to identify the sound science behind this and a much more realistic level of status. In many ways, it's a similar story for fish. However with phosphate is an area for caution there are calls to change the level.
Indeed Wessex note that one way we can achieve the level of good status is by changing the standards - they would argue some are over cautious and some possibly not based on sound science. There is evidence to support this, but I am seeking further info.

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