By Matthew Hatchwell
Photos by David Hadley
Faversham and the rest of north Kent are no exceptions to the national crisis that had emerged in recent years around water quality and pollution caused by raw or partially treated wastewater.
While many other European countries have steadily cleaned up their acts, in 2019 UK bathing water quality ranked 25th out of 31 European countries and thousands of tonnes raw sewage were released in over 20,000 incidents into our rivers and coastal waters. In 2020, DEFRA (the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) found that every single water body assessed in England was polluted beyond legal limits, and that only 16 percent of rivers and lakes met the criteria of ‘good ecological status’.
In Faversham, recent incidents include releases of raw sewage by Southern Water into Cooksditch and Thorne Creek following heavy rain in August 2021, discharges of untreated wastewater from houseboats moored along the Creek, and the ongoing problem of partially treated effluent from the Faversham sewage works being carried up into the town twice daily on rising tides. Across Swale as a whole, the duration of legally- sanctioned raw sewage discharges from storm tank overflows increased more than four-fold from 2019 to 2021.
While Southern Water bears some hands and formed a local coalition called FavWat to start monitoring water quality for themselves responsibility for the problem – and indeed was famously fined £90m in 2019 for serious failings in the operation of its sewage treatment sites – the water quality standards to which the company is held are astonishingly low. Those standards are set by the UK government and enforced by the Environment Agency, whose budget was slashed from £120m to £40m in the decade from 2010 to 2020. Between 2016 and 2020, while EA staff collected detailed evidence on 495 serious incidents involving the worst levels of pollution of rivers and coastal waters across the UK, the Agency only had the resources to take 35 cases forward to prosecution. The rest were punished with lesser sanctions or dropped altogether.
Above: Water samples being collected from Faversham Creek.
In the face of such limited capacity, several local groups in Faversham – the Green Party, Faversham Creek Trust and the Friends of the Westbrook and Stonebridge Pond – have taken matters into their own hands and formed a local coalition called FavWat to start monitoring water quality for themselves. Since December 2022, FavWat volunteers have collected four months of data from weekly testing for the untreated pollutants that pour from the sewage works into Faversham Creek. The Friends of the Westbrook have also been testing the chalk stream. Volunteers have tested so far for ammonia, phosphates and nitrates (which are indicators of human and animal waste, incompletely-treated domestic wastewater and industrial effluents, and fertilizer runoff) and found high levels of phosphates from the sewage works and nitrates at both sites, even in the upper reaches of the Westbrook. In that case, the Environment Agency and Southern Water have been alerted and we can only hope that the source of pollution will be identified and stopped before more damage is done.
High phosphate and nitrate levels at the outfall from the Faversham sewage works are not surprising as the works does not treat for them, but are important to monitor nonetheless since Faversham Creek flows into a nationally- and internationally- designated protected area: the Swale. Excessive nutrients (including nitrates and phosphates) carried into the Swale from Faversham Creek or other sources could have negative impacts on the ecology of the Swale Site of Special Scientific Interest as well as on nearby shellfish fisheries and bathing waters, thereby triggering nutrient neutrality rules that would freeze the level of pollutants that could be discharged into the local environment.
It is hoped that the water quality monitoring being undertaken by FavWat will feed into a wider citizen science project planned by the Zoological Society of London and the Medway and Swale Estuary Partnership to map pollution in the Swale and Medway estuaries. This will inform efforts to reduce pollution at source, to help limit its impact and so improve habitats. A long-term aim of the project is to regenerate sea grass beds in north Kent. These enhance biodiversity (including seahorses), help manage flood risk and absorb significant amounts of carbon at up to 30 times the rate of tropical rainforests.
Above: Comparison test results in parts per million for nitrates and phosphates taken from samples of the water in Faversham Creek.
For Faversham Creek specifically, the long-term goal should be to improve the quality of wastewater treatment to the point where water can be recycled into the local water supply, thereby reducing both the demand for water from the nearby chalk aquifer and discharges of raw or partially treated sewage into the Creek. Another, nature-based solution proposed by Faversham Creek Trust would be to create an area of reed beds north of the sewage works where partially-treated effluent would be filtered naturally before flowing into the Creek. Wider implementation of Sustainable Drainage Systems for housing would both reduce the likelihood of sewage overflows and channel rainwater out of the sewage system into streams. The new Broad Oak reservoir proposed by South East Water near Canterbury may also reduce abstraction in the area and thereby contribute to the restoration of valuable chalk streams and rivers. Current plans to supplement existing water supplies in the southeast with expensive and carbon-intensive desalination plants should be dropped.