I was disappointed to hear that the annual swim organised by the Lynseals in Lynmouth Harbour was cancelled after a CSO overflow the weekend of the event.
I was very disappointed as it attracted a large amount of negative media coverage to a beautiful village that has a beach with bathing water rated as ‘Excellent’.
I have taken time to speak with and meet with South West Water (SWW) having consulted the Environment Agency (EA) on their thoughts.
The EA monitor the ‘Bathing Water’ for bacteria at Lynmouth which is away from the harbour where the swim was due to be held. The EA have no record of any pollution being reported to them over the weekend of the 25 / 26thth of August so no investigation was undertaken. Local rainfall monitors recorded over 36mm of rain on the 25th and this volume of rain would flood the storm sewers and trigger a spill into people’s homes or onto the streets if the CSO had not discharged.
Irrespective of any discharge from a CSO the EA guidance recommends people do not go into the water after heavy rain. Urban drainage and land runoff can easily cause increased levels of bacteria for short periods especially in harbours. You do not need a CSO to discharge for water quality to fall below the standards considered safe for bathing. And a CSO discharge may not cause the water quality to fall below the standards considered safe for bathing, but at this time testing is not immediate and therefore it is precautionary to avoid swimming for at least one tidal rotation since the overflow discharged.
Zero discharges are of course the aim, which is why this government has insisted that CSOs are monitored, and water companies held to account for their performance. The increased monitoring which has gone from approximately 7% in 2010 to over 90% now, with 100% coverage by the end of this year means that we now know when there is a CSO discharge. The increase in the number of CSO discharges in the last few years is because of this monitoring, not because they have only just started happening.
The overflow in Lynmouth that was triggered on the weekend of 25/26 August has done this in the village for decades. Last year it went 18 time, all during periods of significant rainfall which is what it is designed to do to prevent flooding into people’s homes. Whilst we are all keen to see this further reduced, the only reason anyone knows this is happening is the changes made by this government to through our landmark Environment Bill which mandates water companies to monitor their overflows and publish this information. It is also important to note, that the CSO that discharged in Lynmouth is not raw sewage – it is a combined storm overflow and at least 95% rainwater, however the exact make up is not currently monitored.
The water regulators have launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water company sewage discharges ever, at over 2200 treatment works. This follows new data coming to light as a result of the increased monitoring, which has been driven by the Government. Ofwat can fine companies up to 10% of annual turnover. The Environment Agency will act against non compliance, which can include criminal prosecution for which there can be unlimited fines.
In August 2022, the Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan was launched, setting out stringent targets to protect people and the environment, backed up by up to £56 billion capital investment, which is the largest infrastructure programme in water company history.
I welcome that in Lynmouth specifically, South West Water are investing over £4.25 million to March 2025, to reduce the risk of environmental impact from their sewerage network and maintain the excellent bathing water quality, but there is a lot more to do across the country over the next few years.
It is incredibly disappointing when events are cancelled, but after heavy rain it was the right thing to do, regardless of the CSO discharge.
SWW have promised to work with any group hosting sea water swims or other events, to ensure that they have all the environmental information they need to proceed if possible, and they will do more to protect and inform swimmers throughout the year.