How clean is your beach?

Dafydd Vaughan on 7 September 2009

This is a bit different to my usual posts – but I felt this had to be said. Tonight, I had the misfortune of watching what has to be the second worst piece of reporting I’ve ever seen from the BBC (unfortunately ,the first also came from the same programme last year).  Panorama has to be one of the worst examples of tabloid scaremongering ever to grace the BBC.

This evening’s programme “investigated” the water quality of beaches in the UK – in particular looking at problems caused by sewage. The reporter looked at the issue of “combined sewer overflows (CSOs)”. These are essentially overflow pipes for the sewage system (similar to the overflow pipe in your sink) that releases pressure when there is no more capacity for water. Instead of a pipe sticking out of your bathroom wall, these overflow pipes run from the sewage treatment works to a nearby watercourse (a river, stream or the sea). These CSOs are designed to operate very rarely – approximately 10 times a year (at maximum) – usually after a heavy rainfall event.

Unfortunately, the cases highlighted tonight have clearly been discharging sewage significantly more often than this. However, rather than looking at the cause of the issue, the programme instead decided to spend its time bashing the water companies, Environment Agency and local councils. All while scaring people into thinking that 1 in 20 are going to get ill by swimming in the water contaminated with sewage.

Over the past few years, we have increasingly had very wet summers. This has contributed to more and more discharges from the CSOs. But why has this happened? Why are the sewage systems becoming overwhelmed more often. What big change has happened over the last 10/20 years that might have caused this. A lot of people will blame climate change, but it’s much more than that.

Tarmac, concrete and paving. Over the last 10 years, our towns and cities have seen more of their green space covered in tarmac and concrete, people have paved over their driveways and gardens making it more difficult for rainwater to permeate into the ground. Living spaces have been expanded with extensions and conservatories, reducing gardens. Where water would previously have been absorbed by soil, it is now blocked by impermeable surfaces. Where does all this water go? Straight down the drain and into the sewer. In addition to this, lazy building methods and poor planning inspections have lead to guttering being connected to the sewer, rather than a soak-away which allows the rainwater to drain more naturally -and not exacerbate the problem every time it rains heavily.

When we have rainstorms, the sewers are filled to the brim with rainwater – completely overwhelming a system which was not designed for this purpose. The end result is a discharge of rainwater and sewage into the sea through the CSOs.

So how can we reduce this problem (another topic not covered by tonight’s programme). If you have paved, tarmaced or concreted over your driveway/garden – rip it up. Replace it with something more permeable like gravel or a permeable paving solution. If your guttering is connected to the sewer, build a soak-away to allow the water to be absorbed naturally, or consider a Rainwater Harvesting system. Also take a look at Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) – there is lots of information on Wikipedia and

By implementing these measures, we can significantly reduce the amount of water that ends up in the sewer – thus reducing the number of CSOs that happen following rainstorms.

You can rewatch the programme for 7 days on the BBC iPlayer.