We all have a part to play in keeping our coastline clean
Dr Stephen Bird, operations director of South West Water, explains how billions have been spent on our coasts clean and why extreme weather can present challenges.
Devon and Cornwall's stunning coastline is a major attraction for many of the eight million tourists who visit the peninsula each year. The region now enjoys some of the cleanest bathing waters in Europe. But this hasn't always been the case.
Before privatisation in 1989, raw sewage routinely spilled untreated into the sea from almost 40% of the region's homes.
The situation was serious and action was needed.
So, over the last two decades, South West Water undertook a massive clean-up exercise called Clean Sweep, at a cost of £2 billion. It was the biggest environmental clean-up programme of its kind in Europe and started to redress a century of chronic under-investment in the water and sewerage network.
A total of 40 new sewage treatment works have since been built and we've added the equivalent of 86 Olympic-size swimming pools of extra storm water storage, which is vital to protecting beach water quality during our typical British summers.
Malcolm Bell, chief executive of Visit Cornwall, said: "Without Clean Sweep, the tourist industry would have been destroyed."
Yes, it came at a price. But, with community support, we secured a £50 reduction off all household bills with Government until 2020 in order to correct an historic unfairness whereby 3 per cent of the UK's population paid for the clean-up of 33 per cent of the UK's coastal waters.
This year we also introduced a price freeze and we plan to keep household bills below inflation to the end of the decade.
Despite the success of Clean Sweep, more work is needed to keep the region's seas as clean as possible, especially as tougher European Union bathing water standards come into effect next April. That's why we've brought forward an extra £20 million this year to deliver even cleaner seas at seven locations in Devon and Cornwall. Work is under way. This investment and the choice of locations are guided by the Environment Agency so that we focus on the places most at risk of not meeting the new EU directive. Most other beaches are predicted to meet either the Excellent standard, such as at Godrevy, or at least a Good rating.
As part of our 2015-20 business plan, we will be spending a further £42million on bathing water improvements.
Despite the progress and unprecedented investment to date, challenges undoubtedly remain. Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) have attracted some attention recently. There are estimated to be between 20,000 and 30,000 CSOs across the UK. The legacy of Victorian infrastructure means that much of the UK has combined sewers which remove both rainwater and sewage. During periods of intense or prolonged rainfall the system can become overwhelmed, so CSOs serve to prevent homes from being flooded by discharging, legally, into watercourses and eventually the sea.
All CSOs, not just those in Devon and Cornwall, have to comply with strict European legislation and are regulated by the Environment Agency through discharge permits which prescribe the conditions under which they can operate. All of our discharges have these permits.
To protect public health, if an overspill occurs an alert is automatically triggered by our voluntary BeachLive service to beach managers and other interested parties, including Surfers Against Sewage, who take a direct feed from our data and relay it to its members. BeachLive enables beach managers to take positive action as appropriate so that beach users can make informed decisions.
South West Water's BeachLive service (www.beachlive.co.uk), one of the first in the UK, is free to access and members of the public can check the website or sign up for automated alerts.
If permitted discharges do occur they are very diluted, due to the heavy rainfall that triggers them, and have a temporary impact. It is recognised that to separate the surface and waste water network completely would be prohibitively expensive and lead to higher bills.
In the meantime, we're planning to spend more than £1billion to the end of the decade on what customers have told us they value most.
So, water and waste water companies clearly have a key role to play in keeping our seas clean. But many others also have an important role - individuals, by not throwing wet wipes and other unsuitable material down the loo; businesses, by not pouring fats, oils and grease down the drain; farmers, by avoiding agricultural run-off; and councils, developers, housebuilders and property owners, by not concreting over gardens and public spaces, but rather delivering sustainable solutions such as driveways with permeable paving to allow rain to soak through to the ground, gardens with soakaways or rainwater harvesting, or parks with innovative drainage features.
As is often the case, the solution is complex and requires a joint effort from several parties.
The Westcountry is blessed with a wonderful coastline, great beaches and clean seas. Whilst recognising everyone's responsibility to keep it that way, we should all be redoubling our efforts to talk up the attributes of this fantastic part of the UK.