A WATER company failed to notify the public about "the majority" of its sewage spills this summer, putting thousands of swimmers and water users at risk.

Analysis by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) found Southern Water did not alert the charity’s Safer Seas Service about all sewage overflows into bathing waters between May 15 and September 30.

Whereas last year the company issued 690 notifications of spills, this year only 78 alerts were sent to the SAS real-time alert system on pollution releases for water users.

In its Water Quality 2020 report, SAS state that when it asked Southern Water why there had been such a big reduction, it was told: “Notifications should have been sent but frustratingly they weren’t.”

The Argus:

The company reported “technological issues as a result of updating combined sewer overflow discharge reporting systems”.

Southern Water sent no sewage spill alerts in Brighton and Hove this year, compared with more than 50 cases last year.

It means the thousands of people who bathed in waters off the Sussex coast this summer were put at risk of sickness without their knowledge.

This year, SAS logged reports from people across England and Wales who had become unwell after bathing in rivers and oceans.

Of the 153 ill-health reports submitted, 21 per cent were from the area covered by Southern Water – and the highest number came from the beach in front of Hove Lawns, where seven people suffered gastroenteritis-related infections during the bathing season.

The Argus:

“These illnesses could have been prevented if discharge notifications had been issued,” the report said.

One person who swam between Brighton Palace Pier and the marina during the first week in August reported a middle ear infection afterwards.

The 56-year-old said: “I have swum, kayaked and played in the water off Brighton beach since I was a child and love it.

“I originally thought I had an outer ear infection but it was diagnosed as a middle ear infection and I took antibiotics for a week.

“It actually took two weeks to clear. I had difficulty sleeping because of the pain in my ear and jaw and also had an itchy rash all over my back.”

Another swimmer, who bathed in Chichester Harbour just off Pilsey Island on August 10, suffered flu-like sweats and stomach cramps the next day and was diagnosed with gastroenteritis.

The Argus:

The release of sewage into bathing waters happens when the combined sewer overflows (CSOs) need to release pressure, and they are designed to discharge raw sewage and wastewater from the system after extreme rainfall.

But according to the SAS report, CSOs are being used "outside these rainfall periods, resulting in environmental damage and increased risk to water users".

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of SAS, said: “Water companies consistently put profit before fully protecting the environment.

“This report demonstrates that rivers and oceans are being treated like open sewers as combined sewer overflows are used as a routine method for disposing of sewage, instead of in the exceptional circumstances under which it is permitted.

“Even worse, some – like Southern Water – are not even notifying the public when they do this so people cannot make informed decisions about their own health.

“This feels particularly horrifying in a year where we are all battling the Covid-19 pandemic, a virus that is being tracked through sewage works.”

Last year, Ofwat ordered Southern Water pay £126 million in penalty fines to customers following serious failures in the operation of its sewage treatment sites and for deliberately misreporting its performance.

The Argus:

Responding to the latest SAS report, a spokesman for the company said: “We are fortunate enough to serve an outstandingly beautiful region.

“With more than 700 miles of coastline, 58 of our 83 beaches are rated as excellent for water quality and none fall below the acceptable standard.

“In addition to our statutory disclosures to our regulators, we run a voluntary notification scheme called Beachbuoy.

“An improved service is being finalised in consultation with stakeholder groups including Surfers Against Sewage. The new service uses improved software engineering combined with enhanced monitoring at our sites to speed the process of notification and reduce false positives.

“The introduction of the system has had teething problems – we believe that the software to prevent false positives was not operating correctly.

“Our software development teams have continued to refine the engineering over the summer.

“However in previous years notifications were sent out for all activations – meaning that many were false positives.

“During the last stakeholder workshop, we announced that the new system will provide notifications 365 days a year.”