Up shit’s creek: the murky reality of UK waters 

Words by Lucy Jones with art by Theo Verden

Remember pooh sticks, that game you would play as a kid where you would drop a stick into the river on one side of a bridge, then dash over to see it pass under the bridge on the other side? Nowadays, its name could be more literal than you think. Across the UK, raw sewage is being mainlined into lakes, lochs, rivers and coastal waters, causing mass destruction of wildlife, the appearance of huge algal blooms and, for a certain wild swimming fanatic, an unpleasant encounter with an Unidentified Floating Object. 

The UK has one of the worst ranked water qualities across Europe, and with tonnes of untreated sewage being pumped into its water bodies on the sly each year, it’s no surprise that the health of its basins are ‘up the shitter’. According to the Environment Agency, only 14% of England’s rivers are reported to be in good ecological condition and in Wales less than 7% achieve the same rating. 

So how is crap entering our currents? Within our water management systems we have Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs).  These were originally designed to discharge sewer overflow into water in the case of heavy rain, to prevent waste overflow winding back up in our homes. Still a questionable system, but I guess when faced with the choice of having crap dumped into our streams, burns and becks, less is better than more, right? Yet now we don’t even get the luxury of minor dumpage! CSOs are being used with increasing frequency, regardless of whether we’ve had an unexpected amount of rainfall or an amber weather warning. In 2020, 400,000 separate discharges of raw untreated sewage were dumped into our rivers, with 5,500 of them being in public coastal bathing waters, putting both humans and animals at serious risk. 

Surfers Against Sewage report that those coming into contact with contaminated waste-water, whether splashing, surfing, paddling or swimming, could be at risk of contracting gastroenteritis, hepatitis, and e-coli as well as ear, nose, throat and skin infections. On Twitter, people have been sharing experiences of dodgy swim spots, with one woman reporting that a brief splash in a beach in South West England had resulted in her kids contracting thrush and e-coli; it turns out a CSO further up the coast had discharged a large volume of untreated waste the previous day, despite the beach being a popular public bathing spot. 

Wildlife has been getting the shit end of stick, as sewage and agricultural run-off combined with record temperatures this year have led to blooms of harmful blue green algae spawning, making the nightmare geography case studies of eutrophication a reality for most waters. The effects of the green meanie have been clear in the case of Lake Windermere, which ironically was recently named a UNESCO world heritage site (what this title affords in terms of wildlife protection in the site remains unclear). Over the summer, the algal blooms were so pronounced that the entire  

lake changed colour to an alarming pea-soup green. Local populations of keystone species, such as white clawed crayfish, have been in rapid decline, as well as salmon, trout and artic char which are now believed to be entirely extinct in the southern basin of the lake. 

So most of the UK water habitats seem to be turning into toxic-waste water parks, specifically England, but hey, it’s not all bad! Scotland’s waters though whilst not perfect are in considerably better shape than the rest of UKs, as a whopping 66% of its waterbodies are deemed to be in good environmental health. Part of this relative success in water quality could be linked to Scotland still having its water publicly managed, making the Scottish parliament directly accountable for its water system health. This means money is invested into infrastructure management, instead of going towards lining the pockets of shareholders as it does in England, which has a privatized water management system.  

Though Scotland’s water quality is considerably better than elsewhere in the UK, it too has its fair share of CSO dumping’s going on behind the scenes, the exact number of which is unknown – the government is only required to monitor 3% of sewage release points. This lack of monitoring of UK water sources and overall poor accountability of what ends up in them is putting aquatic habitats in danger. Not only does this jeopardize the complex ecosystems it supports but also the health of the public, who are taking the plunge more often than ever, with the rise in popularity of wild swimming and increasingly hot summers. Yet, the condition of UK water courses will not improve until the government takes accountability and cleans up the mess it’s made. 

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