Bid to protect swimmers from pollution at coastal resort

New Brighton beach could be protected from sewage pollution if a new bid is successful.

Swimmers in New Brighton are launching a campaign to see the banks of the River Mersey near the resort given bathing water status. They say this will help protect tourists and summer visitors from any potential sewage pollution in the river.

There are currently four bathing waters in Wirral; at Meols, Moreton, Wallasey, and West Kirby.

It is an official way of recognising a beach is popular for swimming, paddling and other activities in water and means the beach and water quality is monitored throughout the summer for bacteria harmful to human health.

Beaches are rated either as excellent, good, sufficient, or poor, with poor meaning the water has not met the minimum standards. In 2023, Moreton, Meols, and Wallasey were rated excellent but West Kirby dropped to good as data shows bacteria levels spiked there in September.

Current regulations for rivers and open waters like the Mersey Estuary protect wildlife and are not designed for the protection of human health. Bacteria found in pollution from sewage and animal slurry pose the highest risks to swimmers in the Mersey.

A new organisation, Clean Mersey, argues that by getting bathing water status for New Brighton’s beach, United Utilities and any other companies discharging into the Mersey as well as the Environment Agency which oversees them would need to make sure swimmers were protected too.

Hilary Hart (pictured, lead image) from the group became concerned about the potential impact of sewage on swimmers in the Mersey after seeing reports of triathlon competitors falling ill after a competition elsewhere in the country. Recent sewage discharges were blamed for what happened.

For the Mersey, she couldn’t find any answers about how much bacteria like escherichia coli (E. coli) might be present in the Mersey estuary. This is because water quality is managed to make sure wildlife is protected so health risks may be higher for swimmers.

According to data, New Brighton could be one of the worst polluted beaches in the UK and across the Wirral, sewage spills occurred for the equivalent of more than two years in 2023.

Ms Hart, who set up Clean Mersey with fellow swimmer Ian Clayton, said, “You can see that from a wildlife perspective, the river has improved. However, 20 years ago, the sand has built up and we now have a fantastic beach at New Brighton and a thriving resort. The resort isn’t benefiting from all the news about the sewage discharges.”

She added, “A lot of little local businesses rely on the trade that comes in from visitors. On any sunny day, I stay in because it’s so busy down here on the front with people walking around the marine lake.”

While the sand on the beach may appear fine, she said there was no way to be sure of the water quality and safety without testing being carried out, adding, “If that beach was full of E. Coli and intestinal enterococci, no one would know. It’s invisible and that is what makes it so dangerous. We want to know how bad it is because of this.”

She said, “It doesn’t have bathing status so it’s not protected. We both decided there’s got to be a second strand to this. That is clearing up the river and not just for animals”

A ‘bathing water’ must be coastal or inland water with at least 100 bathers a day during the bathing season as well as toilet facilities nearby that bathers can use within 500m of the beach. As well as testing, it would also mean signs are displayed from May through to September showing the quality of the water.

She said some concerns had been raised that highlighting any poor water quality in the river could damage New Brighton’s reputation. She said, “I am thinking about the long term. We want the beach to be protected and this is the only way that you can do it. No beach in the UK is protected from sewage pollution unless it has bathing water status. This is the only way.

“I am conscious it will raise public awareness of sewage in the river next to our beach but I know in the long term this is the only way to stop there being sewage flowing past the beach.”

Wirral Council has confirmed it is supportive of the bid and is working to assist the group. New Brighton councillor Sue Powell-Wilde said, “Wirral’s beaches are some of our most valued and beloved amenities, attracting visitors all year round, and as a council and a community, we strive to keep them clean, safe, and welcoming.”

In 2023, United Utilities had the highest number of sewage discharges out of any water company in the UK. However, the firm said it is taking action, pointing to a recent consultation taking place on a new storm tank at Cheadle.

This will hold 500,000 litres of sewage and will help reduce the number of times sewage discharges into the River Mersey upstream. It is also set to publish near real-time overflow maps in the coming weeks. Once live, people will be able to access the data on United Utilities website.

A United Utilities Spokesperson said, “As part of our ‘Better Rivers: Better Northwest’ plan, we have committed to play our part in creating and promoting additional bathing waters in our rivers and seas. As such, we support, engage and work with organisations such as Clean Mersey for communities to enjoy their local rivers.

“United Utilities is part of the fabric of local communities, and we are meeting regularly with Clean Mersey to listen to their concerns and answer questions.”

To find out more about the campaign, click here.

Lead image: Hilary Hart hopes bathing water status will help clean up the River Mersey. Credit: Ed Barnes

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