Sewage in the Solent: Cold Water Swimmers Fighting For What Matters Most

Feature image credit: Vertigo Films

It’s a mid October afternoon, yet it feels more like late summer as we float around in the Solent under the bright sun. The iconic wooden green beach huts of Gurnard on the north coast of the Isle of Wight are strewn with towels as we swim in the mild water.

We join The Dipping Society at Gurnard, Isle of Wight.

We’ve joined the Dipping Society, a group of swimmers connected by their love of the sea and the feeling it gives them. The group formed in 2018 and has since amassed almost 100 members. Coming together for a swim brings them a sense of community, a shared passion for something that brings them joy.

Today the water is clear, with only the salty scent of seaweed in the air. As we swim we chat about the cold months on the horizon and laugh about our love-hate relationship with the cold water.

But beneath the surface of all this positivity, there’s an anger brewing amongst the swimmers of Gurnard. As we warm up on the shore with teas in hand, the conversation quickly, and inevitably, turns to sewage pollution.

A foul problem

From 2020 to 2021, Gurnard experienced the highest levels of sewage discharge in the whole of the UK. It was closely followed by Cowes, which is barely 2km away. Often, the water takes on a murky brown colour, accompanied by a foul smell. Not what you’d call ideal swimming conditions.

“Private, for-profit companies are pumping out sewage pollution in industrial quantities,” says one of the dippers, Helen, as she warms her hands around a mug. “It’s not just faeces, but it’s a chemical cocktail of everything in wastewater including pharmaceuticals and fertiliser.”

A report recently warned of the dangers to public health and the environment caused by the slurry of chemicals leaking into our waterways. It shed light on swimmers falling ill from taking to the water and river ecosystems deteriorating. Water companies often pass off the releases as being 95% rainwater. Orwell famously said that “political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” In other words, to make something wrong sound right. Urine is 95% water too. Would that be considered safe to swim in? You sure as hell wouldn’t drink it.

So how have things got so bad? One of the problems is that sewage infrastructure is not fit for purpose and is often unable to deal with rainfall. To prevent flooding property, water companies conduct so-called “controlled releases”, diverting wastewater to natural water courses. The reality is that water companies are frequently exceeding their legal limits, in what has been called “serious non-compliance.”

Big blue, not big loo

We meet the swimmers, or ‘Dippers’, at Gurnard a few days later at a protest to address the issue. Around 200 people from across the community join with placards calling for meaningful action. The organisers passionately address the crowd through a megaphone, calling for water companies to be held to account. Also present is the local MP, who is invited to speak. He talks of putting pressure on water companies, carefully skirting thorny questions on why he voted against environment protections.

Protest against sewage

“To say this is just an infrastructure problem is a cop out,” says committed dipper Gareth, “it’s simply cheaper for water companies to dump sewage and pay the fine than it is to fix the problem. In Spain you can get a £645 fine for urinating in the sea. Imagine if we charged the water companies the same amount. Some water companies dumped sewage over three hundred times last year. You do the maths on how much that would cost them.”

Helen nods, “It’s all about the carrot and the stick. And the stick isn’t big enough."

A wave of wild swimming

Wild swimming is witnessing a huge boom in Britain. Internet searches for ‘wild swimming’ have increased by up to 94% in the last 3 years. Before swimmers like the Dipping Society started taking to the sea regularly, the problem was out of sight and out of mind. If you emptied a septic tank and dumped the contents next to people on a beach, you’d get arrested and fined. But water companies use a pipe, which nobody could see… until now. With the sea swimming movement gaining popularity, the more communities we have using the sea and the more this problem becomes all too obvious.

The consequences of not treating the problem are huge. There’s a cost to the economy and the public health system. There’s a cost to the fisherman whose catch now stinks and makes people ill. And of course, there’s a cost for the swimmer who falls unwell after their daily dip - according to a survey earlier this year by SAS, a whopping 55% of British wild swimmers have fallen ill as a consequence of taking to the water. It’s not the water company that bears those costs, it’s the public.

Turning the tide

An easy way to keep people safer would be to have clear signage on the beach during periods of sewage pollution. The Safer Seas app by Surfers Against Sewage shows pollution in near-real time, but what if there was something on the beach to warn of the dangers as well - if slippery floors in supermarkets are a big enough hazard to warrant a sign, surely sewage pollution should be too? Put the problem in sight and in mind.

Secondly, the incentive for water companies to sort out their infrastructure is currently desperately ineffective. Polluting isn’t an unintended mistake; it’s simply the cheaper option. What if the clean-up costs were taxed and put into the NHS for people who get ill?

The Dipping Society is just one group of swimmers fighting to protect what they love. The sea is their escape. It’s a way of socialising, as well as staying physically and mentally healthy.

Anyone can swim in the sea. In fact, it’s one of the most accessible sports there is. What will be the cost if it becomes inaccessible, and is more of a danger to our health than a benefit? Will we look back and think about how we took the natural world for granted?

By putting pressure on those responsible we can change the narrative. Writing to your MP makes the issue real for them, asking for tangible actions like signage on the beach. Wild Justice is a charity set up by Chris Packham, along with other environmentalists, to hold the government to account for protecting the environment. Its findings show that OFWAT (the water services for England and Wales) are failing in their duties, and is currently calling for a subsequent judicial review. Signing up to their newsletter will keep you up-to-date on how to support.

By holding those responsible to account, we really can create a future where both people and nature thrive. Because isn’t that what matters most?

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