17 July 2023

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Manningtree, a riverside town in Essex, may be small in size, but its residents are making big waves in the fight to protect their bathing waters. A group known as the Manningtree Mermaids is taking on the battle against sewage pollution - aiming to raise awareness and combat pollution that threatens their beloved rivers.

Surfers Against Sewage, a marine conservation charity dedicated to working with communities in safeguarding oceans, waves, beaches, and marine life, is providing vital support to this important mission. The charity has received more than £1.1 Million in funding, thanks to players of People's Postcode Lottery.

The Mermaids' journey began when several members of the group fell ill after swimming in the river. Swimmers reported eye and ear infections, urinary tract infections, and stomach bugs, all attributed to sewage contamination resulting from the irresponsible practices of a water company. This ignited their passion to act and safeguard their rivers.

With no existing monitoring system in place for Manningtree's bathing waters, the Mermaids were determined to shed light on the issue. Armed with data from the Rivers Trust and supported by Surfers Against Sewage, they uncovered shocking statistics: sewage had been released into the river 66 times in the previous year, amounting to an alarming 1,248 hours of sewage discharge. Equipped with this evidence, they organised protests and local campaigns for officially-designated bathing waters, demanding immediate action from the water company to address the problem.

This is exactly what Protecting Wild Waters is campaigning is about, supporting community initiatives aimed at improving local water quality. The campaign guides communities through the application process for officially designated bathing waters, equipping local volunteers with the necessary tools to launch effective campaigns.

Officially designated bathing waters are the only blue spaces where water quality is regularly monitored to ensure its impact on human health. They also impose legal obligations on polluting industries, forcing them to improve their practices. In short, it exposes water quality issues and holds polluters accountable.

Surfers Against Sewage aims to support 20 communities in the creation of officially designated bathing waters this year. The charity is already working with communities along the River Dart in Devon, Essex Bridge in Staffordshire, the River Stour in Manningtree, and the River Severn in Shrewsbury. However, they are actively seeking more communities and individuals to join their cause, providing a toolkit and a support team ready to help.

Josh Harris from Surfers Against Sewage stressed the urgent need for action. He said: 

"Our precious inland waters are under threat from a pollution emergency. Through our Protecting Wild Waters campaign and with support from players of People's Postcode Lottery, communities across the UK are empowered to protect their local rivers and lakes, allowing them to thrive once again. This rising tide of local activism inspires us every day and can be the driving force to end the sewage scandal and eliminate sewage pollution for good."

In England, only 14% of rivers are ecologically healthy, with water companies routinely discharging untreated sewage into rivers using overflow systems. In 2022, raw sewage was released into English rivers 372,533 times, a slight reduction from the previous year. The Environment Agency attributed this decrease to dry weather, not proactive action by water companies.

Despite these challenges, over 4.3 million people visit the UK's lakes and rivers every fortnight, highlighting the attraction of our blue spaces. These inland water bodies provide a wide range of benefits, from flood prevention to creating habitats for numerous species. Activities such as swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking, sailing, and angling, which contribute to our wellbeing, attract thousands of hours and millions of pounds each year.

Surfers Against Sewage and groups like Manningtree Mermaids raise awareness and protect rivers and seas from sewage, plastic pollution, industrial exploitation, and the climate crisis - through initiatives like Protecting Wild Waters campaign. You too can make a difference at the local and national levels by getting involved. Funding for these projects was awarded by Postcode Earth Trust.