The clean water sign from Shaldon Parish Council based on Environmental Agency data could lead to dangerous decisions. Investigation by Lee Morgan (The PRSD) and Stuart Reynolds, with findings no doubt repeated right around the UK as the sewage scandal deepens.
This article first appeared in The PRSD and is reproduced by kind permission of the authors.
Shaldon is a picture perfect fishing village at the mouth of the River Teign in South Devon. Around its charming green, the elegant Georgian houses, formerly the homes of ships captains and wealthy merchants, now command million pound price tags. The two beaches attract tourists and second home owners with the prospect of a healthy outdoor lifestyle of wild swimming, paddle boarding and rowing. But even with a water quality sign linked to the Environment Agency a health danger lies in what should be clean water.
Community clean ups
The local Parish Council organises volunteer beach cleans and the many signs direct dog owners to clean up after their pets. The river is home to endangered salmon and sea trout that can sometimes be seen leaping as the tide rushes into the estuary. Early mornings see a steady flow of swimmers, dressed in the now near ubiquitous Dry Robes, enjoying an early morning dip.
Yet Shaldon, like many seaside resorts, is struggling with the lack of investment in its water infrastructure. Four combined sewer overflows discharge into the river upstream of the main beach. In 2022, there were nearly 20 alerts, so far in 2023 there have been 8.
The local Parish Council which owns the beach operates a warning system in conjunction with the Environment Agency. An illuminated sign in the shelter for the ferry across the river to Teignmouth, gives a red warning advising against bathing. Daily emails from the Environment Agency are checked by the council to ensure that the sign is working.
However, all is not quite as it seems. A local resident and water campaigner, Stuart Reynolds, noticed that the sign was not providing a warning.
“It was a very wet day and I checked the Surfers Against Sewage website for any local warnings. There were warnings nearby and one of the CSOs [Combined Sewers Overflows] in Shaldon had spilled sewage into the river.”
Despite warnings for water quality just a few hundred yards away, the Shaldon warning sign was still advising bathers it was safe to swim.
After contacting the Parish Council, he was told that the sign was checked daily and that the Environment Agency had not issued any warnings about the water quality in the river.
“I was surprised, it was one of the wettest July days of the last decade and the water was very brown. I knew something was wrong.”
A few days later, the full truth emerged. The very next day the Environment Agency had, by chance, carried out their weekly testing. The results were shocking. The water quality was the worst recorded on the Environment Agency’s website for that location. The level of Faecal Indicator Organisms in the river, a measure of the likelihood of faeces in the river, exceeded the normal level by hundreds of times. The level of Intestinal Enterococci was nearly 13 times higher than the minimum standard for bathing water. According to the Environment Agency “If a bathing water is classified as Poor, then a sign advising against bathing will be displayed.”
Despite this, no warning was ever displayed. Both the chair of the Parish Council and the chair of the District Council, wrote to the Environment Agency asking for an explanation of what went wrong with the warning system.
Marine biologist and analytical chemist Dr David Santillo of the University of Exeter took a look at the results. David pointed out that testing results were for E. coli (EC) and for intestinal enterococci (IE)
“The latter being roughly (though not exactly) equivalent to what used to be reported as faecal coliforms,” he said. “Essentially more a measure of sewage pollution than E. coli, which can come from a wider range of sources.”
The limit values for both EC and IE that are used by the EA/DEFRA to classify bathing waters are explained here.
David said: “The data you have for Shaldon indicate that, on all those dates listed except one, the levels of EC and IE were low enough for the water to be recorded as “excellent” insofar as it relates to bacterial contamination. There are some levels of E coli. on other days, but well below the limit values set by the government.”
“The samples on that day were way above the limits even for ‘sufficient’ quality, and would have been labelled as ‘poor’.”
“The exception is on 15 July, which presumably followed some particularly heavy rain that led to stormwater overflow use. The samples on that day were way above the limits even for ‘sufficient’ quality, and would have been labelled as ‘poor’.”
Dr Santillo pointed out that on that particular day, the number of bacteria, both EC and IE, were way above levels considered to be ‘safe’.
“You would hope that no IE should ever be detectable as that is a much more direct sign of sewage pollution in the vicinity.”
“In more general terms, while there is always a possibility to find low levels of EC in waters that are relatively pristine, as they can come from regular outflow of the river, carrying organic materials from farmland etc. upstream, you would hope that no IE should ever be detectable as that is a much more direct sign of sewage pollution in the vicinity.”
“Incidentally, these regular tests look only at those two groups of bacteria and not at the potential presence of other pathogens, including viruses. The tests rather use the EC and IE values as a proxy for other potential pathogens, with the assumption that if they are low, there should be low risk from sewage-related viruses and other pathogens also.”
Continuing to analyse
We also asked a retired Environment Agency scientist to interpret the data related to the bathing water sample from Shaldon at 11:25 on 15 July 2023.
“The bacterial levels are certainly elevated. However, why there was no warning sign up for the water quality for the bathing water at Shaldon when they were in place nearby, I know not. You would need to ask the Environment Agency why the poor water quality was not predicted,” we were told.
the Environment Agency said…
A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “Our officers are continuing to analyse the latest water quality tests for Shaldon and are liaising with our local partners.
“The latest bathing water results are available via our SWIMFO platform: Bathing water profile (data.gov.uk)
“The water quality tests we carry out are approved by the World Health Organisation and used by many countries.
“If people have environmental concerns they should contact our 24/7 hotline on 0800 807060.”
The retired scientist said there were various potential reasons for the cause of poor water quality.
“The local storm overflow(s) is (are) certainly one of them, but I would point out that the bathing water sample was taken at low water which was predicted to be at 11:20 on the 15 July for the Teign Estuary approaches.
“From the data in the EA’s monitoring database, which is publicly accessible, the salinity of the bathing water sample at Shaldon was 29.07. This is low for the salinity at Shaldon, meaning that there is a reasonable contribution of freshwater in the sample (about 18 per cent)
“The rainfall round Teignmouth was also the greatest for the month of July on the 14 July, the day before the sample was taken [see article by Mike Trigger in Dawlish Nub]. This means that there could have been a significant contribution of bacteria from all the sources entering the Teign Estuary above Shaldon, including various storm overflows, agricultural run-off to streams and rivers, and urban surface water discharges.
“It is not easy to be definitive on the causes of poor water quality at a site when there are a plethora of potential sources; and this is particularly the case for bathing water sites at the bottom of estuaries after heavy rainfall.”
Bathing water monitoring and bacterial testing are defined in the Statutory Regulations for the bathing waters which can be found here.
Fit for purpose?
Our investigation suggests that the warning system is simply not fit for purpose and that this could be mirrored across many locations where sewage overflows exist. The Environment Agency says that its warning system doesn’t take into account any impact of CSOs because a reliable means of forecasting does not exist.
The current warning system is primarily designed to give warnings when pollution is expected from sources other than sewage (agricultural run off or even seagulls and pigeons). The system also allows the Environment Agency to disregard some of the worst test results in assessing whether the bathing water is up to standard. However, by not taking into account sewage overflows the warning system automatically ignores what can be the worst pollution events.
It takes a minimum 54 hours to complete a test for Intestinal Enterococci so there’s no prospect of providing real time results. Anyone enjoying their early morning dip in the river that day would have been unaware of the poor water quality.
Wait 48 hours if you want to be safe
South West Water’s Waterfit Live Map has a system of blue and amber pins which show when a CSO has dumped sewage but this is far from reliable.
According to SWW, “An amber pin is returned to a blue pin after there has been a full tidal cycle, approximately 12.5 hours, with no further overflow discharges of a duration which would trigger a further alert.” During neap tides (which occur every fortnight) the tidal flow may not be strong enough to disperse the sewage.
At Shaldon there’s a complex system of back eddies near the sewage overflows which can mean the sewage is trapped in the river for longer than the 12.5 hours SWW allows before giving the all clear.
Talking to local wild swimmers, most don’t rely on the official forecasts.
“The wild swimmers that I know use the Surfers Against Sewage app or simply don’t swim after heavy rain,” said Stuart.
Luckily, in Shaldon there’s an alternative beach, Ness Cove, which is usually cleaner and farther away from the overflows.
However, without proper warnings, even experienced open water swimmers in organised groups can suffer problems.
No pollution alerts
Louise Knapman recalls an incident last summer:
“Our coach told us that there were no pollution alerts he was aware of but said the water didn’t look good to him and that we would all need a ‘very thorough shower’ once we got home.”
“The water was unusually brown and smelt awful. At the end of the session I had a faecal-like taste in my mouth. Over the next few days I had a gripey stomach and abdominal pain accompanied by bouts of profuse diarrhoea.”
“You don’t forget the smell or taste of faeces.”
Louise, a qualified nurse said:
“I am pretty certain I became unwell due to swimming in the dirty sea water. You don’t forget the smell or taste of faeces.”
There are other flaws with the Environment Agency system. Testing is carried out just 20 times a year. Wild swimming is popular year round but this has not changed the Environment Agency’s approach to water quality testing which is still confined to May through to September.
The testing is routinely carried out during working hours but bacteria levels are affected by exposure to sunlight. Testing earlier in the morning, when the Dry Robed swimmers are usually in the water, could show levels more than double that later in the day.
What’s more, weekly testing means that the worst pollution levels can go undetected. With many of the pollution episodes occurring outside of the summer months, it is likely that the scale of the problem is being significantly understated.
Shaldon Parish Council have been moved to make a statement:
‘Shaldon Parish Council care deeply about the village beaches and the safety of the beach and water users.
Mr Reynolds has raised with us some facts about the water quality in the Harbour on specific dates, that are of concern.
On 14/15 July Our Beach Digital Read Out Sign, from the Environment Agency , remained green, and the daily water quality email alerts sent to the parish council indicated that it was safe to bathe off Shaldon Beach.
We are making enquiries to the Environment Agency and SWW about the storm water stress discharges at Shaldon and will invite a representative from each of these organisations to attend our next full council meeting, on September 26.
We have placed an additional sign by the EA display board on Shaldon Beach advising water users to check the SWW water fit live site around times of heavy rainfall. ‘
“It’s hard to resist the conclusion that something is seriously wrong here. A warning sign that proudly declares that the water is safe at a time when local councillors are describing the levels of pollution as ‘elevated and dangerous’ is worse than useless.“
West England Bylines publish twitter comments on sewage leaks.