The impact of sewage alerts on swimming at Readymoney Cove

The impact of sewage alerts on swimming at Readymoney Cove

Victoria Clark

Swimming in the beautiful waters off the Cornish coast should be a given. But these days we are bombarded with stories about water companies releasing sewage into our seas and rivers and it's really quite worrying.

The recent Channel 4 programme Joe Lycett v Sewage covered some absolutely horrifying aspects of the frankly outdated and past it's best waste water system in the UK,  Courtesy of an industry whistleblower, the programme also showed the viewers at home quite the lengths some of these companies will go to to ensure their shareholders don't suffer whilst our waterways become ever more fetid and disgusting.

The swim area at Readymoney Cove Fowey Cornwall

Surfers Against Sewage

Cornwall based Charity Surfers Against Sewage was established 30 years ago in response to surfers getting understandably fed up with raw human sewage and sanitary towels floating past their faces in the sea. You'd hope that in those intervening three decades years things might have changed for the better. Well, they did up to a point and Surfers Against Sewage instead started turning their attention to plastic pollution in the oceans instead. However, in recent years the water situation has deteriorated rapidly. If you spend any time at all by the sea, especially in the water, you can't help but be aware of the seemingly endless sewage alerts via app like Safer Seas & Rivers. The app is available on both iOs and Android systems and makes it easy to check your intended swim or surf spot before you prepare to hit the water. It covers over 450 locations across the UK, obviously including many a Cornish beach. How nice that we now have to deal with sewage AND plastic pollution.

Given that my business is right by the sea and swimming at Readymoney Cove is year round for me, I've taken some time to look further into the issues with water quality. Caveat (I am a lawyer by training after all...): I am NOT an expert and this all based on my own research. It's clearly far from ideal for our environment and our lifestyles but I personally don't think you are likely to meet a floater mid swim (as per this classic scene from Kevin & Perry Go Large?). At least I really hope not....

Rockpools at Readymoney Cove beach Fowey Cornwall

Readymoney Cove Water Quality

The real nitty gritty information about the water quality at Readymoney Cove is to be found here, courtesy of the Environment Agency who take weekly water samples during official bathing season: 1st May to 30th September. This harks back to the days before year round cold swimming became such a popular past-time. These days if you check our beach webcam you will see a near constant stream of people swimmming at Readymoney Cove, whatever the weather but for the time being at least, data is only collected during official bathing season. 

The factors which affect water quality and therefore swimming at Readymoney Cove are as follows:

1. Readymoney Cove is obviously next to the River Fowey estuary where water quality is temporarily worse during and after heavy rainfall, particularly at low tide.

2. The Readymoney stream flows onto the beach which can also affect water quality after heavy rainfall.

3. Most sewers in England are “combined sewers” carrying both sewage & surface water from roofs and drains. During heavy rainfall a storm overflow system operates when the sewerage system becomes overwhelmed by the amount of surface water. This prevents sewage from backing up in pipes and causing flooding to properties and gardens. According to the water companies, there will also be infrequent emergency overflows which operate perhaps due to pump failure or a blockage. Our sewerage system is quite literally no longer fit for purpose so the water companies are legally allowed to discharge untreated waste water through these overflows, it's bonkers really.

4. The old lime kiln building at Readymoney (the stone bit with the turrets right next to the shop) contains a South West Water pumping station and there are hatches on the beach slipway which access the sewerage tanks under the beach. There is an emergency/storm overflow from the pumping station at Readymoney Cove and this discharges 100m from the beach (you can see the pipe running along the right hand side of the beach where the rockpools are in the photo above). There are also other emergency/storm overflows that discharge into the estuary and operation of those overflows can lead to a temporary drop in bathing water quality. 

Swimmers at Readymoney Cove beach, Fowey, Cornwall

But what does this actually mean for swimming at Readymoney Cove?

Well, if you clicked the link above and looked at the graphs you'll see that Readymoney Cove's water quality assessment dropped from Excellent to Good for 2023. From discussions with Fowey Harbour Office (who work closely with the Environment Agency on issues of water quality in Fowey) this was mainly due to a huge spike in intestinal enterococci bacteria when the water was tested on 29th August 2022. I actually took the above photo on that date, it's not what you would expect to see is it? But still, who wants to swim in "opportunistic pathogens that may cause urinary tract infections, sepsis, bacteremia or endocarditis"?! 🤢

The relevant water company here in Cornwall is South West Water and on their WaterFitLive website here you can see the exact locations of each overflow and using their traffic light system, details of whether there has been an overflow and if so, when it started and stopped (this is of course assuming no issues with the equipment...). I tend to cross refer WaterFitLive with the Safer Seas app to check exactly where the discharge has been been, at what time and what the tide has done since.

Winter sea after heavy rainfall at Readymoney Cove beach Fowey Cornwall

But what if the sea is brown?

As mentioned above, because of geographical nature of the Fowey estuary, we are particularly susceptible to waking up to find the water a rather unappealing shade of brown. If you swim off the coast of Suffolk for example, this won't ruffle your feathers at all but here in Cornwall it is most likely to relate to run-off from the surrounding land after heavy rain.

After one particularly noteworthy August storm there was so much brown muddy water running down the hill towards the shop, from both the stream and the road, that the paved area outside the beach shelter filled up to past knee height! There was some opportunistic kayaking down the slipway and some helpful wetsuit clad visitors unclogged the drainage holes to get things moving again, click here to watch the video footage! The Environment Agency work with local farms to limit this agricultural run off but I'm not a fan of swimming in muddy water when we're used to such clear water.

Also, after heavy rain & stormy weather you often see unpleasant looking brown foamy scum at Readymoney, really unappealing (as in the photo above). However, this is more likely to be "agitated algae", caused by the vigorous movement of the sea in bad weather and this sea foam can actually be a sign of a healthy ocean eco-system! It's a minefield isn't it?

Swimmers at Readymoney Cove beach Fowey Cornwall

So should I swim at Readymoney or not?

I canvassed opinion in our local Bluetits Chill Swimmers group (not exactly scientific research but better than nothing): broadly around 75% of members wouldn't swim where there was a live alert and the remaining 25% would still swim but keep their head above water to avoid swallowing and have a good scrub in a hot shower afterwards. Personally, I have a compromised immune system (due to medication I take for psoriatic arthritis) so would be more cautious than some. Also after needing antibiotics for an infected cut in my foot after last year's Harbour Swim from Town Quay, I always swim in water shoes and would cover any cuts or open wounds.

Swimming in the sea ALWAYS requires a judgement call to be made regarding the water conditions, what the tide is doing, what the wind is doing, your own state of health, state of mind and so much more. So perhaps rather unhelpfully, you're not going to get a definitive answer from me (I used to be a litigation solicitor, can you tell.....😜) about whether to go in the sea or not, it's your call. 

Either way, you can still enjoy Readymoney Cove without going in the water, as many do each day. The beach shop is open every day except Christmas Day (find our opening hours here) and we've got delicious hot drinks, homemade cakes, hot pastries and gorgeous locally sourced gifts & cards to browse so don't let a poop alert put you off paying us a visit!

Also, one last thing, if you have watched the Channel 4 documentary above you'll know that there's a dedicated website you can use to send a template email** to your local water company to protest against profits being used to pay dividends to shareholders rather than invest in new improved infrastructure. A drop in the ocean maybe but every little helps. Click here to register your views.

**UPDATE: I got a response from South West Water. Also received by many others I imagine but I've set it out below for completeness. Make of it what you will!

Hello Victoria

Thank you for taking the time to respond to Joe Lycett’s campaign to water companies.

We are aware of the interest our customers have in our use of storm overflows, and the care they hold for the coastline of the South West.

We also share that care, which is why we’ve been heavily investing in improving our sewer system to reduce storm overflows and increase its resilience to climate change. Our programme of work up to 2025 is outlined in our WaterFit plans. We remain on target to deliver a maximum of 20 spills per storm overflow by 2025, ahead of the Government’s mandated targets. In 2022 bathing season, spills reduced by 50% across the region, with the duration of those spills down by 75%. Whilst undoubtedly the dry weather will have played a part, over half of the improvements seen in the year are due to interventions we’ve made. (Annual Report 2023, page 17).

By listening to our customers, we were able to include their concerns for bathing waters, storm overflows and the natural environment into our business planning priorities. We’ve already costed our Plan for Change 2025-30, which includes investing £2.8billion - £761million of that is being spent solely on reducing the amount of sewage entering our waters (Business Plan 2025-30, page 54).

Two thirds of this investment comes from shareholders – including our customers who have become shareholders through our WaterShare+ scheme. Without their investment, we wouldn’t be able to afford the improvements we’re making.  Dividends are the shareholders’ financial returns for their investment – their incentive to keep investing. Each year, we make sure that our dividend payments are fair and representative of the investment companies and individuals make into our business.

We hope this explains the relationship between spills and dividends. We will continue to reduce the amount of sewage entering our rivers and seas, but to do that we need your support and the support of our shareholders.

Please see the following link which will take you to our WaterFit pages on our website.  These pages describe what we are doing to reduce storm overflows, why they occur, and how heavy rainfall can impact water quality.

South West Water is fully committed to playing its part in protecting our region’s natural environment. This is key for us and we continue to reduce pollutions and target zero serious pollutions by 2025.

Thank you again for taking an interest in our business.

Yours faithfully,

South West Water

Victoria, owner of Readymoney Beach Shop drinking a hot chocolate after a swim

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This is a very well written piece Victoria and thank you for the clarification re Readymoney.
I started many of The Bluetits groups in Cornwall nearly 5 years ago now and we have noticed that the sewage problem has been getting worse and worse.
It’s so unbelievable that in 2024 we are having to check our sea bathing water quality.
As cold water swimmers we have set up a new group Sh*t Free Seas and please do join.
We love Readymoney and love your shop and will be with you next weekend for a swim, if not sooner xxxx

Sarah Walsh

Hi Victoria. I love Readymoney either on a cols wintery night or equally on a hot summers day. That was a well balanced article, far more well balanced than I would have written as someone who is about to retire early from one of the water companies. Hopefully the water companies will soon be brought to task and eliminate spills from CSO’s although I fear it will be many years. Cheers K.

Karl Mclean

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