More questions than answers as residents meet Southern Water

southern water treatment works signResidents, group reps and councillors were able to put concerns directly to Southern Water at a meeting at St Denys Church Centre.



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Issues raised on Tuesday evening (Jan 16) included discharges into the river and water quality, odours, waste transportation, flooding, investment, climate resilience planning, and concerns over communication and transparency.

Opening proceedings, meeting organiser Cllr John Savage (Lab, Portswood) said that it had been at times a “difficult journey” with Southern Water, whose treatment works are situated in St Denys, because while situations are local, the company itself is regional.

But he said he’d been determined to ensure that the community could communicate its expectations about “how we want things to go on from there”.

On water quality, Savage was one of many speakers with concerns.

He said that as a member of St Denys Boat Club, and with so many people using the river recreationally, it was essential to see improvements.

“It just seems utterly unreasonable that people can be made sick by going on paddle boards or in a canoe at the end of their back garden,” he said.

He noted that in Millbrook, Marchwood and Woolston there are plans to install UV treatment, but “there doesn’t appear to be any on the radar” for St Denys.

He called for decisions to be made to create a much cleaner river, and said that that would go hand-in-hand with an application for designated bathing water status.

‘My ambition ... is to be able to swim in a clean river within my lifetime. So not in 15, 20 years' time, when I might not be able to enjoy it. Sooner than that.’

Gavin Millar, chair of conservation and campaigning group Friends of the Itchen Estuary emphasised that the river is a “hugely important open space for Southampton with great value for mental and physical wellbeing, recreation and biodiversity”.

He said his group’s own water testing had revealed “without a doubt” that water quality is “a long way south” of what is normally described as ‘Poor’, whether it be “rain or shine”.

He added that they had further, more intensive, water quality testing ‘in the pipeline’.

Millar said that on average there is the equivalent volume of “six Olympic-swimming pools-worth going into the river per day” of sewage effluent. You can read more of the group’s statement in this Facebook thread.

Concluding, he said that he’d recently retired from work. “My ambition for the Itchen Estuary is to be able to swim in a clean river within my lifetime. So not in 15, 20 years' time, when I might not be able to enjoy it. Sooner than that.”

southern water treatment works sign

Water quality was also emphasised by other speakers, including a former swimmer with the Kingfisher group, who said she’d been ill as a result of E. coli swimming after swimming the Itchen, and Alice Kloker from Hampshire Open Water Swimmers.

She shared her personal journey into open swimming during the lockdowns, highlighting its positive impact on her mental, physical, and spiritual well-being.

Despite expressing a desire to swim in the Cobden Bridge area, she recounted a disheartening experience of attempting it. Even with a "high tolerance" for poor water, she described it as the "most disgusting swim" she'd ever had.

And her concerns extended beyond personal experiences, raising questions – along with Ron Meldrum later in the meeting – about climate resilience plans on the part of Southern Water in the face of increasingly severe weather and rising water levels.

She joined others in advocating for continuous monitoring, transparent open data sharing, updates on local investments, and the establishment of "concrete timelines." And she too emphasised the aspiration for designated bathing status for the river, not limiting swimming to adventurous individuals but fostering a safe environment for all.

‘And then over comes this awful fug … it’s so embarrassing. It ruins the day’

Talking about the pervasive issue of odours, Priory Road north resident Jan Krumins said that after upgrades some years ago the situation did seem to improve, but progressively it has again become worse.

He wondered whether increases in local resident numbers – notably student blocks – were a cause.

He said: “I’m sure we’ve all got anecdotes of a nice summer day, having a party, friends around, the sun is shining, the BBQ is just warming up. And then over comes this awful fug … it’s so embarrassing. It ruins the day.”

And he slammed Southern Water over its complaints procedure, saying it “hasn’t really been fit for purpose”. A special email address for St Denys issues had even been set up at one point, yet apparently it later mysteriously vanished.

riverside park with sewage works closer shot Jan 24 P1040817

Krumins said that now, rather than just putting forward what’s perceived as anecdotal evidence of odours, volunteers in various locations around and beyond the sewage works have got together to try to record each incident, which they are compiling centrally.

Concluding, he asked the company: “Will Southern Water commit to getting rid of this odour issue once and for all, and will it therefore be included in their next round of budgetary spending?”

Responding to some of the points made, Steve Court from Southern Water said that no one from the site was available to attend, but that this meeting wasn’t a “one done” for them, and that this wasn’t the only opportunity to comment. But representatives present couldn’t “speak from a technical point of view on what’s going on over there [at the St Denys site]”.

He said he recognised common complaints around odours and water quality.

“Our main thing here tonight is to listen ... so that we know who to bring out when we come to see you.”

He said Southern Water would actually be back next week to specifically talk about a scheme to build more storage at the St Denys site, to reduce the amount of water being released in storm conditions.

Court did seem sympathetic to an application for clean bathing status, and said some funding could be available to support it. Questioned later in the meeting by Cllr Marie Finn (Lab, Portswood) he said that he couldn’t commit to it and needed to talk to “the people that actually know what goes into the process”.

paddleboarders on river itchen nr Cobden Bridge All Aboard 23 600px 20230610 153339

He also stressed that there was a data sharing agreement with Surfers against Sewage, and that “it’s important to notice” that data all storm overflows would be added to Southern Water’s storm release activity site Beachbuoy by the end of March – implying that data from the St Denys site will also be included.

Later in the meeting, when asked to be more specific about timeframes and when people could expect to attend a meeting “that could be more genuinely productive”, Court said that drop-in sessions called ‘Your Water Matters’ take place across the region, and there would be one in Southampton by the end of March at which specialists could explain the company’s plans.

But he added: “What I’m keen to do is to hold another forum like this that’s more specific to this area. To actually get back to you with… the things you’re telling me tonight … so that I can bring those subject matter experts along.”

However another attendee said: “Why are Southern Water being so slopey shouldered? We’ve been complaining for months – years in some cases … [but] on a daily basis we’re being gaslighted.”

Referring to when specific complaints are made she said: “It’s really nice that you have community meetings but you don’t actually want to listen when we tell you stuff.”

There was discussion on a range of further issues at the meeting including:

  • Council's role: Exploration of any levers available to the council, considering odours as a potential statutory nuisance
  • Poo Barge replacement: Why the Poo Barge was replaced by sometimes aromatic HGVs trucking through residential neighbourhoods – attributed by attendees to cost considerations over tides
  • Odour Management Plan: Concerns were raised about the purported incompleteness of the plan, with only ¾ of the required content
  • Community Collaboration: Discussion on how Southern Water could collaborate with generally willing local communities, addressing issues such as water run-off reduction initiatives
  • Water extraction: Concerns over extraction from a chalk river, raised by Cllr Barbour (Green, Portswood)

and others!

‘People are absolutely right to challenge us’

Asked after the meeting how it had gone for him, Steve Court from Southern Water said: “I can’t comment on that. I’m not here to be a spokesperson.”

He did however add: “It’s all a part of us being a better neighbour to people. So our community engagement – we’re happy to do more of these kinds of events. And it needs to be nice and focused on the things that really matter. I think we have got two clear areas – well three clear areas that have come out of tonight’s discussion that we’ll be looking at, and when John [Cllr Savage] sends the rest of the questions through… It’s just about that kind of being more open with people, and responding to the things that matter.”

He agreed that there were some high quality questions, and said that “people are absolutely right to challenge us”.

And he agreed that they’d be coming back with some answers.

After the meeting, organiser Cllr John Savage told that he thought the it had gone well, all things considered, and had been “polite and respectful”.

“We didn’t get lots of the answers that we really wanted. This was really just organised just before Christmas, and resulted from the fact that they promised, back in June or July, to host this meeting and they didn’t get round to it. So I kind of ‘ambushed’ them and got them to do it.

“So at least we got somebody here who got some questions put to them, and now we’ve just got to see what answers we get back.

“And look forward to the next meeting.”

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