Chichester Harbour: Illegal disposal of untreated sewage waste has done ‘incalculable damage’

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“The illegal disposal of untreated sewage waste into coastal waters over a period of many years has done incalculable damage to the region and to the ecology of Chichester Harbour, a fragile intertidal environment, in particular.”

The Chichester Harbour Trust made this statement after Southern Water was last week fined a record £90 million for ‘persistently breaching environmental regulations’ during the period 2010-15.

Southern admitted pumping 16bn-21bn litres of untreated sewage into delicate ecosystems, including at Chichester Harbour. This is how Southern Water’s CEO responded to the sentence

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“Regrettably, we observe that the damage to Chichester Harbour continues,” the trust statement read. 

Chichester Harbour from Prinsted SUS-201216-123514001Chichester Harbour from Prinsted SUS-201216-123514001
Chichester Harbour from Prinsted SUS-201216-123514001

“Water quality continues to deteriorate due principally to excess nitrates and storm discharges, compounded by over-development of the surrounding area.

“Natural England produced a devastating report on the state of Chichester Harbour SSSI earlier this year.”

‘Last year alone’, Southern Water pumped untreated waste water into the harbour on 117 days, according to the Chichester Harbour Trust.

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A spokesperson added: “Southern Water continue to connect up major new housing developments in the district to the existing sewage system, for which it is quite clear they do not have the capacity — and this is before the revised Chichester District Local Plan which calls for an additional 12,500 homes to be built in the area over the next 15 years.

“Southern water doesn’t appear to have a coherent plan to address the problem.”

In response, Southern said it has ‘actively demonstrated’ its leadership over the future health of Chichester and Langstone Harbours. This was through its work ‘convening a multi-agency group of senior leaders’, to work together to tackle the issue of water quality and ‘protect the precious natural habitat of the harbours’.

“Chichester Conservancy Trust is part of this group,” a Southern Water spokesperson added. “The work is being overseen by one of the leading global thought leaders on green capital and environmental economics, Professor Sir Dieter Helm, who was independent chair of the senior leaders’ summit hosted by Southern Water on May 21.”

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Following that meeting, Southern Water ‘committed to funding’ the development of a natural capital baseline assessment to secure ‘the long-term, environmental and economic future of these important natural habitats’.

A further meeting is being planned for the autumn to ‘ensure the momentum and shared commitment to finding nature-based solutions is maintained’.

However, the Chichester Harbour Trust claimed there is a ‘lack of local leadership’ in coming forward with solutions to prevent what is an ‘emerging environmental catastrophe’. The trust said this is ‘despite many meetings’ involving Chichester District Council, MP Gillian Keegan, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, and Natural England,

The statement added: “We call on our local democratically elected leaders and representatives to step up, show dynamic leadership and serve their communities and ecosystems before it is too late.”

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The district council said it is ‘committed to working together’ with its partners and the MP to ‘improve and protect the harbour for years to come’.

“We recognise that Chichester Harbour is a very special place,” a spokesperson said. “We have been raising concerns with OFWAT and have met with them; we have held a number of meetings with ministers; we’ve questioned and held Southern Water to account at our Overview and Scrutiny Committee; we regularly meet with Southern Water to address concerns raised and identify improvements; and, we are already committing to water efficiency standards and to achieving nitrogen neutrality within planning applications for new housing now and in new homes within our Local Plan Review.”

The council said it is ‘important to understand’ that waste water from treatment plants is responsible for ‘no more than 10 per cent of nitrogen entering Chichester Harbour’.

“Far more runs off surrounding farmland as a result of agricultural production,” the spokesperson said. “This is why we are working with our partners to come up with long term solutions that can respond to all of these issues.

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“As part of this we are participating in and supporting the Chichester Harbour Water Quality Group and Chichester Harbour Protection and Recovery of Nature group.

“The organisations participating in this all have a role to play and by working together to develop an action plan we believe that we can make a difference over the long term.”

Southern Water, meanwhile, stressed that it cannot control any development works ‘and we are not a statutory consultee’.

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However, it remains ‘committed to ensuring’ a proportion of its £5 million environmental improvement fund for 2021/22 ‘will be invested in the area’.

“This is in addition to the investment of £6.4 million in preventing groundwater infiltration to the sewer network in the Chichester area.

“Across the region Southern Water is spending £1.7 billion in the next four years on maintaining and improving its waste water network and treatment works to protect the environment.

“This includes £13 million to be invested to improve instrumentation and data capture that further reduces the risk to the environment from storm overflows, including at Budds Farm, which releases into Langstone Harbour.

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“The partnership approach being led by Southern Water recognises the multiple sources of nutrients that impact water quality.

“We seek to work in partnership with developers and are raising incentive payments to encourage sustainable drainage and water efficiency in new homes and business construction.”