Call to come clean on River Exe pollution

A motion, to be brought before full council on 21 February by Green Party Councillor Tess Read, will seek to protect and improve the condition of the River Exe for people and for wildlife. In particular, it will aim to hold South West Water, the Environment Agency and Natural England accountable for levels of sewage discharge [1]. 

If supported by the Labour-led Council, the motion would also see DEFRA and the National Farmers’ Union being asked to inform the Council on what action is being taken by local farmers to prevent agricultural waste flowing into the River Exe.  

Councillor Tess Read said:

“It’s time for those who are responsible for contaminating our waterways to come clean. Pollution from water treatment plants and agriculture are the key sources of the damage to the River Exe. 

“This motion, if backed by Labour councillors, will help to hold South West Water, the Environment Agency, regional farmers and others to account for the quality of the river’s water. This is crucial, as the Exe Estuary has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area, supporting important bird populations.”

Green Party Councillor Catherine Rees, who has seconded the motion, said:

“The pollution of our rivers and the sea is, rightly, of great public concern. Not one English waterway is currently in good ecological and chemical health and only stretches of two UK rivers have been granted bathing status. Yet shockingly, the Environment Agency recently announced that the target to clean up England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters has been pushed back 36 years, from 2027 to 2063. This is throwing the towel in.”

Councillor Tess Read added:

“My dream, which I know is shared by others, is that one day the River Exe will be clean enough to swim in without health fears caused by pollution. And that wildlife both in the river and along its banks can thrive. The first step on that journey is to end the cocktail of agricultural and sewage pollution being dumped into the river countless times each year.”

ENDS

Notes

[1] The motion in full: 

The Council notes:

In July 2019 Exeter, along with hundreds of other councils, declared a climate emergency.  This declaration was strengthened in April 2021 by including biodiversity.  The Rivers Trust says ‘Rivers are in the forefront of our climate and nature crisis.  For habitats to adapt and recover from climate shocks, we need healthy rivers’. The Council has an obligation to protect its rivers and ECC’s Harbour Board has as one of its core values “We will lead in environmental stewardship of the Port.” The Exe Estuary has the highest protection status afforded to it and is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area because it supports internationally important populations of birds such as the Slavonian Grebe and the Avocet, as well as Dunlin, Oystercatcher, Blacktailed Godwit and more.

The issue of sewage pollution of rivers and the sea is rightly high on the public and political agenda as the Environment Agency recently revealed that not one English waterway, including rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters is in good ecological and chemical health at present. Pollution from water treatment plants and agriculture are the key sources of the damage. Meanwhile the Environment Agency recently shockingly announced that the target to clean up the majority of England’s rivers, lakes and coastal waters has been pushed back 36 years, from 2027 to 2063. To date only stretches of two rivers in the UK have been granted bathing status, a section of the Wharfe and of the Thames.

This council resolves to:

  1. Recognise that there is clear evidence of poor water quality in the Exe due to cumulative impact of multiple sewage discharge events or ‘sewage overload’. 
  2. Request from SouthWest Water that an evidence base is compiled that assesses the cumulative impact of sewage discharge on ecological river health, and in addition the impact of polluted water on wildlife and biodiversity along the banks of the river should be monitored.   
  3. Ask the Chair of the relevant scrutiny committee to invite the Chief Executive of SouthWest Water plus senior representatives from the Environment Agency and Natural England/Natural Resources Wales to attend a meeting to answer questions on the current levels of sewage discharge. 
  4. Ask the Chair of the relevant Scrutiny committee to contact DEFRA and the regional director of the National Farmers’ Union for clarification on action being taken by local farmers to prevent agricultural waste flowing into the river.  
  5. Ask Southwest Water from this date onwards, in its planning consultation responses for major development, to clarify which treatment works will be managing the sewage; whether it has the information available to assess the impact on the number or duration of sewage discharges into local rivers or seas, and if it does have this information to share it (noting that this can only be requested not required). 
  6. Request Exeter City Council to lobby both our local Members of Parliament, the Local Government Association and the Department for Communities and Local Government to ban sewage discharges into swimming areas and where protected wildlife lives.

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