The protest was organised by Dawlish Councillor Martin Wrigley and Teignmouth Councillor David Cox, who, in recent years, have made persistent efforts to hold South West Water accountable for their conduct.
Protesters dressed up and wrote placards calling for an end to sewage discharges. They also signed a giant postcard demanding that the practice ends, which will be delivered to South West Water.
Councillor and organiser Martin Wrigley said: ‘It was a great day, lovely weather and a great turnout. There was a great diversity of people, There were a large number of environmental activists, but there was also a huge diversity of local residents: swimming club members, people who use the sea, and people in wheelchairs who go swimming every day. You could see that this issue was universally important for the community.’
The protest follows a summer of sewage along the southwest coast. On multiple occasions, beachgoers were warned not to swim in the water off Teignmouth, Dawlish and Holcombe after heavy rain this summer. Warnings were also put in place across many beaches across the South West.
According to Top of the Poops, an organisation monitoring sewage discharges across the UK, the Central Devon constituency was the seventh worst for sewage dumps last year, with over 4,500 separate sewage dumps, amounting to over 43,000 hours of sewage pumping. The Newton Abbot constituency saw over 2,000 sewage dumps, or 2,900 hours. The Environmental Agency gave South West Water its worst environmental rating of just one star, a score shared only with Southern Water.
Councillor Wrigley said: ‘It is an absolute disgrace, in this day there’s no excuse for having systems that are leaking so badly, killing our rivers and seas, it’s pure profit-driven mismanagement of the infrastructure. It’s just not acceptable, and we must do everything we can to hold South West Water to account.’
However, Environmental Agency data suggests that the problem could be much worse than it appears. An analysis of their past data shows that some sewage discharge monitors, designed to measure the amount of sewage being pumped into our rivers and seas, are either faulty or not working at all.
According to the data, 31% of South West Water’s monitors were either not installed or faulty in 2021, the second highest in the country. These included three sewer overflow points that discharged at Dawlish Town Beach and one at Teignmouth Beach, one of which was working less than half the time it was meant to. South West Water blamed this on a ‘communications failure’.
While the points at Dawlish and Teignmouth have since been fixed, many other repairs remain ongoing. There were also faulty discharge points up and down the rivers Exe, Teign and Dart, leading to concerns of shellfish contamination in farms at the mouths of the rivers.
‘This is concerning for everyone’ said Councillor Wrigley. ‘But in reality, it’s only the government that can fix it, because of the licence that these companies are under, they don’t have the right to operate, they run it under license. So the government can control what they do if they chose to do so.’
A South West Water spokesperson said: ‘After listening to and talking with customers, communities and campaigners right across our region, in April we announced WaterFit, our plans to protect rivers and seas together. WaterFit will dramatically reduce our use of storm overflows, maintain our region’s excellent bathing water quality standards all year round and reduce and then remove our impact on river water quality by 2030. Working with partners and customers WaterFit will begin to deliver the change we all want to see.’