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All rivers in Suffolk failing to achieve Government pollution target, experts say

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Experts and councillors have discussed the pollution crisis in Suffolk’s rivers, after a report emerged that showed none of the county’s rivers met standards.

Anglian Water, the Environment Agency, Essex and Suffolk Rivers Trust and Suffolk County Council joined the Suffolk flood risk management committee on Tuesday morning to discuss the issue.

A report prepared ahead of the meeting said that the county’s designated bathing spots in Lowestoft, Southwold and Felixstowe were classed as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ but said that “all our rivers are failing to achieve the Government and Water Framework Directive (WFD) target”.

The River Orwell in Ipswich. Picture: JASON NOBLE LDRS
The River Orwell in Ipswich. Picture: JASON NOBLE LDRS

Some of the key findings the meeting highlighted were as follows.

Why sewage ends up in the water

The meeting heard that in times of power failure a pumping station can discharge untreated sewage, while extreme wet weather can cause an overflow in the combined storm overflow where there is “so much water in the system, the works can’t treat it all”.

Combined storm overflows are no longer built, but remain a legacy from the early-mid 20th Century when they were built to protect homes from sewer flooding. Anglian Water said they were not a solution to the modern problems and is installing ‘duration event monitors’ on those to measure the extent of the problem and remove the worst offenders.

The River Orwell in Ipswich. Picture: JASON NOBLE LDRS
The River Orwell in Ipswich. Picture: JASON NOBLE LDRS

Blockages in those occur for three reasons – when unsuitable items are put down the sink or toilet, rising ground water levels infiltrating sewers and too much water from events like heavy rain.

“A real scourge for us is wet wipes,” said Robin Price, director for quality and environment at Anglian Water. “It’s also working around fats and greases and we have got a huge programme with food service establishments around education and what to do with waste oils, don’t just pour them down the sewer.”

In the short term, storm tanks are collecting water but Anglian Water said this was not a long term solution.

More sustainably, Anglian Water says work to stop excess water filtering into sewers was needed, and better solutions at the planning stage of new builds were needed to ensure natural drainage rather than automatically connecting to the Anglian Water network.

Sewage is not the only problem

The Environment Agency has reported that agricultural sources of pollution “make up at least as much of the problem as water company discharges do”, prompting the body to hire officers specifically to work on agricultural inspections and regulating farming.

Those pollutants can include nitrates and phosphates, which can prompt algae blooms and unnatural balance of nutrients in the water, as well as some pesticides.

Andy Went, catchment officer for the Essex and Suffolk Rivers Trust, said agricultural practices, physical modifications of the water courses, barriers to fish movement, road run-off, and historic land uses also had an impact.

E. coli has been identified in the River Deben

“E. coli has been recognised, however it is still being analysed on to whether it is effluent related from sewage treatment works or whether it is from livestock,” Mr Went said.

“That is work the local council have picked up with the River Deben Association.”

Oxygen deficits have been identified in the Deben during the summer months.

Water quantity

Mr Went said: “It is predicted, with climate change, by 2050 that rainfall in the summer will be 39 per cent less in the region,” and added that river flows could be “81 per cent lower than they currently are” as a result.

He said that would be the opposite in the winter with big increases in river flow and rainfall.

A strategic pipeline from the north of the region is planned by Anglian Water to bring more water through to Essex and Suffolk.

It is also encouraging people to be more efficient with water, and utilise methods like water butts and rainwater collection.

Funding has hit water monitoring

The Environment Agency has reported a drop in its Government funding for monitoring and response work to incidents.

It said that since 2009 its funding has reduced by 63 per cent down to £40million in 2020.

For example, this year it has seven sites along the River Stour for water chemistry monitoring, down from the 20 it had in 2017.

The organisation said it was now relying less on spot-samples with workers and more on devices which sit permanently in the water and relay real-time data.

Ben Marshall, senior environment officer at the Environment Agency, said: “We acknowledge that the rivers are nowhere near as good as they should be, and against a very strict financial climate we need to be working hard with water companies, the agricultural sector and trying to find improvements in our own organisation so we can deliver more for the less we are getting at the moment.”

‘Citizen science’ monitoring could be used as a means of future data gathering.

Water companies are under investigation

Mr Marshall said that there is currently a national investigation looking at the water companies and their overflow sewage works, but couldn’t give any further details on its scope.

He did however confirm that there was not a live Suffolk-only investigation.