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Sharp increase in sewage overflow in Nairnshire sparks concerns

By Federica Stefani

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LibDem candidate for the new Moray West, Nairn and Strathspe constituency Neil Alexander at water the monitoring site in Nairn.
LibDem candidate for the new Moray West, Nairn and Strathspe constituency Neil Alexander at water the monitoring site in Nairn.

Sewage overflows in Nairn and Cawdor have increased by more than 185 per cent between 2022 and 2023, according to Scottish Water records.

A total of 118 sewage spillages has been reported in 2023, with 41 spillages in 2022.

According to data published by Scottish Water and analysed by the Scottish Liberal Democrats, a volume of over 137,000 m3 of sewage was spilled in Nairn in 2023, up from 59,000 in 2022 – an increase of more than 130 per cent.

The figures have raised concerns among local representatives and over the impact the overflows may have on the environment and quality of water in Nairnshire.

Neil Alexander, the Lib Dem general election candidate for the area, said the new figures were “disgusting”, and called for immediate action.

He said: “These new figures make me feel sick. It’s disgusting to learn of how big an increase in sewage dumping there was in 2023 in our home area

“Even these figures are likely an underestimation, as Scotland just doesn’t monitor enough sites. Scotland is way behind England where nearly every overflow is monitored.

“In the Moray local council area, there is still no monitoring on rivers despite repeated issues last year - where schools were impacted and people got sick on the River Spey paddleboarding

“We need a Clean Water Act, it’s what my campaign and the Scottish Liberal Democrats have been calling for to turn the tide on this national scandal.”

Storm and emergency overflows are licensed by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) to discharge to the water environment under the Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) regulations (CAR).

Licences contain conditions set by SEPA to protect the environment and include overflow settings, storage, screening, event recording and reporting requirement

There is only one monitoring site in Nairn and a further one monitoring site in total on the River Nairn within the Highland local authority area.

Nairn and Councillor Barbara Jarvie said this is a “very alarming” statistic.

She said: “What happens in our tidal moray firth affects the health of our entire coastlines, natural habitats and ecosystems that also has an impact on biodiversity and natural flood defence systems.

“What explanation and action regarding this and future prevention has been ascertained and evaluation of the effects of that volume at that speed on marine life and coastal ecosystems? Are our sewage systems efficiently and realistically monitored enough to prevent this prolonged occurrence happening again?

“It concerns me that invisible chemicals within sewage could be spread far and wide or linger, how do we know what or where short-term, long- term or cumulative damage has been done?”

A spokesperson for local charity, Green Hive, added: “"Green Hive takes a keen interest in the health and vitality of our local waterways, and has expended considerable energy over the last few years working with local volunteers to remove hogweed, Japanese knotweed, Himalayan balsam and other damaging invasive species from the banks of the Nairn and Cawdor rivers.

“Obviously we are disturbed by any news of raw sewage being discharged into these precious assets, and hope that measures will be taken to ensure their protection in the future."

However Scottish Water said that the increased overflow events were due to the increase in rainfall

Professor Simon Parsons, Scottish Water’s director of Environment, Planning and Assurance, said: “Scotland’s rivers and water environment is in good health – 87 per cent of Scotland’s waterbodies are in ‘good’ or better condition, among the best in Europe, and we continue to be on track to deliver improvements across our waste water system including installing 1,000 additional monitors at discharge locations.

“There was an increase in the number of overflows last year because of higher rainfall. Our network helps drain away from communities - Storm Babet was in October and that month was the wettest in Scotland on record - and we anticipate as the climate changes that rainfall will continue to overload our sewers. We are working with partners across Scotland to deliver new ways of managing surface water.

“Around 99 per cent of these overflows is rainwater, surface water, road run-off, grey water, infiltration of groundwater and trade effluent. More than half of the overflows we report are at locations (Settled Storm Sewer Overflows/SSSOs) where there has been treatment of the flows, such as primary settlement and screening.

“We recognise releasing waste water, even occasionally, into Scotland’s rivers and seas is a concern to people and we are playing our part in fully informing the public, as well as improving infrastructure.”

Nathan Critchlow-Watton, head of water and planning at SEPA, added: “Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) are an integral part of Scotland’s sewerage system, designed to discharge at times of high rainfall to prevent sewage backing-up and flooding houses. SEPA regulate discharges to the water environment, including discharges from CSOs, and assess Sewer Network Licenses on a rolling basis, with particular focus on those which have unsatisfactory compliance, as these can discharge sewage litter and impact on people’s enjoyment of the environment.

“Climate change is leading to an increased frequency of high-intensity rainfall events, affecting the number of overflow events. We’re clear in our regulatory role in ensuring Scottish Water delivers against the Urban Waters Route Map, prioritising investment where it will have the most benefit for the environment and communities. This includes investment in the development of improved monitoring infrastructure to provide essential and comprehensive overflow data while ensuring minimal impact on our natural environment.

“Scottish Water have committed to installing monitors on every CSO discharging to a Bathing or Shellfish Water by the end of 2024, with near real-time monitoring published for all these monitored CSOs by the end 2024. SEPA will ensure this commitment is delivered.”

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