An interactive map detailing bathing water quality now reads ‘out of season’ for many Cornish beaches. The interactive map is part of an initiative from Surfers Against Sewage called the ‘Safer Seas Service’. The service takes the form of an interactive map and a phone application, and is extremely resourceful to many surfers and other water sports enthusiasts throughout the country.

A screen shot of the interactive map reading ‘out of season.’

The Safer Seas Service relies on updates regarding untreated sewage spills and storm drain (diffuse) pollution to provide information to its users throughout bathing season. This information originates from South West Water, The Environment Agency, and other participating water companies. However, bathing season only runs from May 15th to September 30th, so outside of these months updates on are not (usually) provided to the service.

The issue faced by surfers is that Autumn and Winter are the most prolific seasons for swells being generated in the Atlantic. Part of Autumn’s package also provides warm water, and consistent offshore winds which makes it the best time of year for surfing in Cornwall. Even in the coldest depths of winter, modern wetsuit technology makes surfing in freezing temperatures comfortable. These time periods all fall outside of ‘bathing season’, so unless spills are visibly noticeable, surfers are unintentionally exposing themselves to the severe health implications that contaminated waters can cause. David Smith, spokesperson for Surfers Against Sewage told Truthfal: “Whilst we appreciate the data we do receive, we really encourage South West Water to provide year-round updates like some other water companies across the UK are able to. The service is often put into a maintenance mode throughout winter, which isn’t great for surfers and it would be ideal if updates could be provided for all beaches even throughout this period.”

Surfing Porthleven in winter.

According to South West Water’s website they appreciate that there are water sports enthusiasts such as surfers who use the sea all year, however given “the amount of resource required to run the service compared to the relatively small number of people who will continue to use it during the winter” they switch it off. The service they provide now includes information on selected Cornish beaches for a certain amount of time extending the bathing season’s official end. The website also states: “The Environment Agency’s Pollution Risk Forecast (PRF) system, which alerts the public when certain bathing waters may be affected by rainfall, is also discontinued outside of the bathing water season.” South West Water believes that if it is to make major changes to the seasons in which the service is active, it will need the majority of its customers to back this initiative as they will in effect be funding the longer operating time through their taxes and bills.

Surfers Against Sewage is part of a European Commission expert panel reviewing the bathing water directive, Defra’s Cleaner Seas Forum and various regional Bathing Water Liaison Groups. As part of this initiative their websites states it is pushing for:

Taken from https://www.sas.org.uk/safer-seas-service/

It’s not just individual surfers affected by diffuse pollution and sewage spills. Surf schools and other beach-based businesses also suffer from the impact of spills on Cornish beaches. Shore Surf School based in Hayle told Truthfal they have had to: “relocate lessons from Godrevy to St Ives on various occasions due to visible untreated sewage spills.” They found this “a massive inconvenience” and explained that “on one occasion they couldn’t even relocate to St Ives as the whole bay was affected”.

The question that arrises from this environmentally detrimental issue is why are sewage spills such a prominent and recurring issue? Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) act as an emergency discharge valve for untreated human sewage and waste-water when sewerage systems become overloaded. They are an essential part of the systems in order to stop sewage backing up in to houses and gardens during periods of prolonged rainfall. Surfers Against Sewage are concerned  that these emergency release valves are being used more and more frequently, often during times of little to no rainfall. The cause for this is believed to be the fact that the sewerage systems in the UK are old, and therefore struggling to cope with the ever-expanding volumes of waste from the present day.

Action is being called against water companies such as South West Water to urgently begin to update the sewerage systems in the UK. Untreated spills are meant to be an emergency measure. However, Surfers Against Sewage had to issue 244,124 reduced water quality warnings nationally for the 2016 bathing season alone. It is evident that these so called emergencies are becoming the norm. Surfers Against Sewage have so far managed to put pressure on the current Bathing Water Directive (how the quality of bathing water is measured), and continually campaign for stricter water quality standards in the UK.

More information from South West Water is available here.

Some facts from SAS