The Overview and Scrutiny Board are asked to consider information presented from both the Environment Agency and Wessex Water regarding issues around water pollution in the BCP area – including Poole Harbour, Christchurch Harbour, the Rivers Stour, Avon and Piddle and Poole Bay coastal outflows. The purpose of this item is to gain a greater understanding of the issues involved and consider the action being taken to address this.
Presentations from Wessex Water and the Environment Agency will be considered, and these will be circulated prior to the meeting.
Relevant officers and the Portfolio Holder for Environment and Place have also been invited to attend the meeting for consideration of this item.
The Chairman explained that the purpose of this item, originally requested by Board member Cllr C Rigby, was to gain a greater understanding of the issues involved around water pollution in the BCP area and consider the action being taken to address this.
The Board received presentations from Ruth Barden, Director of Environmental Solutions, Wessex Water (WW), and Ian Withers, Area Environment Manager Wessex, Environment Agency (EA). WW had been asked to explain the current situation regarding water pollution: where it comes from, its severity and impact, what was being done to reduce pollution and how long would this take. The EA had been asked to explain its role and responsibilities as regulator, what standards were required and achieved, and what were its future expectations. The presentations were circulated to Board members in advance of the meeting, copies of which appear as Appendix A to these minutes in the Minute Book.
Following their presentations WW and EA responded to a number of points raised by the Board, including:
· What is being done to monitor water quality all year round?
Board members referred to the rising number of incidents reported by local residents, the growing popularity of cold water swimming and other activities outside of the traditional ‘bathing season’ (May to September). WW reported that it was working with local community volunteers in some locations to take regular and responsive samples out of season and it was working with the surfing community to monitor illness. Board members challenged the statement that swimming with your mouth open may result in illness. WW clarified that even bathing waters graded ‘excellent’ were not free from bacteria, for example from bird and dog fouling, and therefore could potentially cause illness.
The EA acknowledged the need to respond to society’s increasing use of coastal and inland waters all year round and to consider where the costs of making environmental improvements lay. The EA representative undertook to report back to colleagues on the points raised.
· What is considered to be a storm event, in terms of design and frequency and taking into account climate change?
WW explained that the requirements for sewage infrastructure depended upon the overiding legislation and location. Discharges were permitted up to 10 times per year in the bathing season over a 10 year period average (to allow that some years were wetter than others) and up to three times all year round per year for shellfish areas. These figures were based on rainfall levels and some modelling for climate change. The sewage network was designed for a one in 50 rainfall event but in developing the drainage and waste management plan a higher return period of one on 100 was being considered.
With regard to discharges permitted over the 10 year timescale WW clarified that this did not mean that problems were not investigated and prioritised as they arose.
· Are WW and EA lobbying Government if the current regulations are considered insufficient to achieve the changes required?
WW was represented on Defra’s storm task force and was active in tackling issues such as wetwipes misuse by campaigning for change and educating customers. As a government body the EA did not lobby itself but its data was used by the water companies and the Government as evidence to identify and address issues.
· Board members questioned whether the cost of improvements should fall on the consumer when dividends continued to be paid out, particularly when investment was linked with future profits? A Board member also commented on the consequences of privatisation on the infrastructure and the customer.
The role of Ofwat as the economic regulator of the water and sewerage sectors in England and Wales was noted. In respect of wider points raised, the Chairman reminded the Board that the purpose of this item was to gather information about local issues affecting the BCP area.
· Who is responsible for dealing with the impact of new development and is there legislation in place to address this?
WW confirmed that both legislation and planning policy encouraged sustainable drainage. However, if developers were unable to dispose of surface water on site they were entitled to connect into the combined sewer and many did so. Although WW was not a statutory consultee it did undertake capacity assessments on development proposals. However, there was no requirement on developers or the Local Planning Authority (LPA) to accept its findings. Within WW there was a developer services group which considered future plans, projections and capacity. WW explained that while developers were happy to provide on-site sewage treatment works, they were reluctant to manage and maintain the system for its lifespan. WW would prefer not to have on-site sewage works because they often did not meet required standards and the problems were then passed on to WW and the customer to resolve.
· If new developments upstream did not deliver on site solutions, how did this affect existing properties downstream with older sewage systems?
WW explained that subject to the results of the capacity assessment the developer could be required to pay for infrastructure to connect into a different part of the network.
· A Board member commented on the substantial increase in WW discharges recorded at many locations and was concerned that this now appeared to be the norm rather than the exception.
The Board was advised that WW and the EA had a shared aspiration for zero discharges, but this was very difficult to achieve due to the needs of a growing population and the behaviour of others in causing pollution.
· What issues would WW recommend lobbying MPs on?
WW would seek recognition that surface water should not be in the sewage system. It would support further research to clarify any specific harm to health and the environment caused by overflows and a wider discussion on what the solutions should be.
· There were concerns that the amount and frequency of discharges into Poole Harbour was escalating way beyond permitted levels. It was reported that the oyster farm had been closed for five months due to norovirus caused by human sewage and that in the summer of 2020 ecoli levels nearly resulted in the permanent downgrading of the shellfish beds.
WW clarified that the discharges were not in the form of solid waste. It was rainwater which included foul sewage and other contaminants from water run-off. Discharging was a passive procedure necessitated by system overload. The Board was reminded that pollution also came from other unrelated sources. In terms of testing WW was working with the fish health inspectorate (CEFAS) on a method to analyse for norovirus and was also working with public health bodeis. Five overflows in Poole were being monitored. WW operated Coast Watch, an online overflow notification system which contacted interested parties when discharges were active.
WW confirmed it was working with Bournemouth University to share data from its research into higher mortality levels in oysters compared to similar locations in France. The EA explained that it was very difficult to model tidal marine environments but assured members that there was collaborative work taking place to respond to the issues affecting shellfish.
· Were the wider issues of water catchment and cumulative impact being addressed?
WW advised that the entire length of water courses were being looked at, to establish the impact of other conurbations upstream and to consider the impact of WW’s own operations. The results of this work would help inform future decision making.
· How was surface water being addressed in low lying areas where soakaways were not viable?
WW explained that more collaborative work was needed to identify the best solution for specific locations. Options may be to separate and discharge elsewhere and/or consider more nature based solutions.
The Portfolio Holder was asked about the role of the Council in making the public aware when discharges occurred. He explained that when this happened for example in Boscombe the Council assessed the data and if required put up red flag alerts on the beach. Officers confirmed that the Council did have a responsibility to alert the public when there were water quality issues and would close off areas of the beach if necessary. The Portfolio Holder was asked about lobbying the local MPs. He advised that he was already making arrangements to meet with the MPs, WW and the EA to lobby on various issues, many of which had been raised at this meeting, and he would be happy to report back to the Board on the outcome.
The Chairman thanked Ruth Barden and Ian Withers for their attendance and contributions to the meeting.
RESOLVEDto recommend that the relevant Portfolio Holder write to all BCP MPs and Ofwat expressing BCP Council’s concerns on the level of use of combined sewage overflows and the effect of this on both bathing water quality and the shell fishing industries, requesting that they lobby Government for legislation to be improved and action taken to address what are currently unacceptable water quality levels.