Chichester Harbour: Urgent action needed to avoid environmental catastrophe, says charity dedicated to protecting it

Chichester Harbour Trust is calling on regulatory body Ofwat to use its legislative powers to put Southern Water into special administration, in order to avoid an environmental catastrophe.

The trust is concerned not enough is being done to improve water quality in the Harbour, but is reassured that, after ten years of wastewater treatment issues, Chichester MP Gillian Keegan is now working on a collaborative approach between regulators and stakeholders towards a resolution.

John Nelson, chairman, said: “We all need to force the regulators to take immediate action before we have an environmental and public health catastrophe.

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“Over the Christmas period, there were uninterrupted discharges into Chichester Harbour for six days. Given Southern Water’s record, the time has come to implement radical change.

Southern Water's wastewater treatment works at Apuldram

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“Nothing short of radical and accelerated action will avoid an environmental catastrophe.”

The trust is highlighting the issue as part of its campaign for a moratorium on any significant new development in the area and for the Chichester Local Plan timetable to be put on hold.

Mr Nelson explained: “Water quality and the lack of water treatment capacity provided by Southern Water is one of the Harbour’s key concerns in relation to the local plan.

Chichester Harbour with a view to Kingley Vale. Southern Water has been told to implement additional cleansing of the effluent discharge at its waste treatment works to reduce the level of bacteria which may be taken up by shellfish in Chichester Harbour

“This concern has been there for a number of years. Despite sanctions taken by the regulators, water quality has continued to deteriorate and therefore threats to public health are increasing.

“The good news is that, after much pressure from us and others, and as reported in the Observer last week, Chichester District Council at last now appear to be taking this more seriously.”

The trust believes urgent steps need to be taken to substantially increase the water treatment capacity, or in the short term to provide emergency diversion for raw sewage.

Last year, Southern Water was pumping raw sewage into the Harbour on 100 days in the 12 months.

Mr Nelson said; “A combination of new developments and increased rainfall from climate change means this rate is likely to increase. Southern Water say they will continue to connect up new developments to the current infrastructure and they will continue to pump raw sewage into the harbour because they have a licence to do so.

“These issues have been outstanding since 2010. Despite all Ofwat’s efforts and the measures it has taken over the past decade, the situation has continued to deteriorate – and in recent months at an increasing rate.

“The measures that need to be taken to rectify the current situation and to increase the capacity for new housing developments will take some years to build.

“This issue on its own renders the implementation of the local plan in its current form impossible. All the other issues of infrastructure, environment, wildlife, biodiversity and landscape remain. A moratorium on additional development is becoming more important and more urgent.”

In a letter to Jonson Cox, chairman of Ofwat, and Sir James Bevan, chief executive at the Environment Agency, in November, Mr Nelson said major discharges into the neighbouring, and interconnected, Langstone Harbour had been very concerning.

He said: “In recent heavy rainfall we have seen raw sewage coming up through manhole covers in villages around the Harbour.

“This kind of ongoing pollution is not compatible with a developed nation with established operational and consenting structures in place.

“We have now reached a point where the Harbour is becoming environmentally unsustainable. The impact on wildlife, botany, recreation (including fishing, swimming and sailing) is there for all to see.”

Ofwat chief executive Rachel Fletcher met with Gillian Keegan MP on December 18 to discuss Southern Water’s wastewater infrastructure performance, including in relation to Chichester Harbour. A follow-up meeting with environment minister Rebecca Pow is also planned.

Until the situation is resolved, the trust continues to call on the council to put the Chichester Local Plan timetable on hold, although it agrees work on the plan must and should continue.

The trust remains committed to working closely with the council on developing a new plan that will minimise the impact on Chichester Harbour.

The Environment Agency has an ongoing investigation looking at contraventions of environmental permits by Southern Water at a number of its wastewater treatment works.

This includes offences from 2010 to 2015 at Apuldram, Bosham Creek and Thornham wastewater treatment works, which discharge into Chichester Harbour. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for early February 2021.

Ofwat took action against Southern Water in 2019 due to operational failures of its wastewater treatment sites and misreporting. As well as paying £123 million back to customers and a £3million fine, Southern Water has introduced new governance arrangements to support accurate monitoring and reporting. In addition, it will introduce new measures to change the company’s culture, which enabled these failings and behaviours.

Ofwat is part of a recently-established storm overflows taskforce, which will develop proposals to significantly reduce the frequency and impact of sewage discharges from storm overflows, with a range of ambitions from reducing spills to phasing out overflows.

Ofwat has allowed Southern Water £3.4billion over the next five years, of which £1.6 billion is allocated to its wastewater operations. The company’s investment plans in the Chichester catchment include multi-million pound works to reduce groundwater infiltration into its network, which is a key contributing factor to the discharges into Chichester Harbour.

In his response, Mr Cox said: “It is now up to Southern Water to deliver this planned investment. We will monitor Southern Water closely to make sure they deliver the improvements that their customers want and deserve.”