On Saturday 23 April, Surfers Against Sewage, in conjunction with Manningtree Mermaids Against Sewage, organised a protest against Anglian Water Company discharging sewage into rivers, locally the River Stour. This was also the main protest for the East Anglian region and was intended to send a strong message to Anglian Water against the discharge of untreated sewage in virtually all rivers in the region. Surfers against Sewage say that sewage was dumped by Anglian Water for more than 194,000 hours in 2021.
There was a colourful and noisy procession along the sea wall into the town, and finally to a gathering on Manningtree beach where sea shanties were sung and speeches were made.
The science of river pollution
Professor of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Suffolk, Professor Nic Bury, told the audience that water companies are permitted to dump some sewage in waterways during storms, but it is now proven that they also do it at other times. He described three particular problems: bacteria which can cause infections like E. Coli; nutrient discharges which cause algal blooms – particularly harmful in East Anglia’s precious chalk streams; and prescriptions drugs which pass from humans into sewage and can contaminate aquatic life.
It is not yet known the harm the latter could cause in freshwater ecosystems. Professor Bury runs a project measuring E. coli counts in rivers, and a sample taken just off Manningtree’s jetty found 1000cfu/100ml. The maximum for safe swimming is 500cfu/100ml. He is very concerned that the Environment Agency’s budget has been halved in recent years so they simply don’t have the resources to address all pollution incidents.
Local people are angry
Mayor of Manningtree, Cllr Michelle Taylor, pointed out that sewage can cause illness, and that local sailors, anglers, wild swimmers and birdwatchers need to know that their water is safe and clean. She said Surfers against Sewage are calling for an end to sewage discharge into UK bathing waters by 2030. This would need stronger and bolder targets to end untreated sewage discharge, an enhanced testing regime, nature restoration to reduce pressure and minimise impacts, and increased investment in industry infrastructure to prevent destructive practices.
John Hall, leader of the Essex Wildlife Trust for 28 years, told the audience that untreated sewage discharges were a national problem, but that he personally knew of many incidents in the River Colne just up the road in Colchester.
The Mermaids care about their river
Member of Manningtree Mermaids Wild Swimmers, Ness Woodcock-Dennis, is worried because sewage in the water passes into the food chain via the fish we eat. “We don’t really know the effect it is having on our bodies,” she says. She is dismayed that we have so lost our connection with the natural environment that it is thought acceptable to contaminate rivers like this. She doesn’t like to swim after heavy rain as it is likely the water company has opened the storm drains, but even this precaution is not foolproof as it’s known that sewage is also discharged at other times. Sometimes the water looks dirty, sometimes not, but “Just because you can’t see something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there”, she points out.
Just four miles up the River Stour at Dedham Boathouse is a well-loved local beauty spot where people enjoy boating and paddle-boarding in the water. Unfortunately, and probably unbeknownst to them, there is a sewage treatment plant behind the trees, where in 2021, a sewer storm overflow discharged for 1,248 hours (i.e. 52 days) into the Dedham Mill Stour tributary. This water flows slowly downstream to Manningtree and could contaminate everything it touches. Only last year, people were advised not to enter the Stour after a number of swimmers became sick. No wonder the Mermaids are angry.