The surfing sewage hunters holding Britain’s water companies to account

Young woman on the beach, sitting on surfboard, using smartphone
Environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage has created an app to help beachgoers navigate England's occassionally murky waters - Westend61/Getty

The most pressing questions ahead of a family trip to the seaside used to be whether it would be sunny, how far the tide would be in or out, and if that favourite shop from last year selling sticks of rock, buckets and spades would still be there.

Today’s parents have to worry about skin, ear and eye infections, dysentery, e.coli and even viral hepatitis. So do swimmers, anglers and surfboarders. The UK’s beaches routinely come bottom of the European table for water quality. Red flags fly on dozens of them at bank holiday weekends and in the peak summer months.

The reasons? Litter, filthy river water and, above all, raw sewage being dumped into the sea, and a lot of it. Analysis by the Liberal Democrats of Environment Agency data found water companies in England dumped sewage near England’s Blue Flag beaches 1,504 times last year. Watchdogs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland report similar findings.

Water companies like United Utilities and Northumbrian Water publish information on beaches in their regions, but it’s limited and can be hard to interpret. With 25 water suppliers across the UK, where can holidaymakers turn for useful and practical advice?

St Agnes, England
Surfers Against Sewage is based in St Agnes, Cornwall, which is popular with swimmers and surfers - iStock/Getty

Surfers might not sound like the most obvious support group, but environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) – based in St Agnes, Cornwall – have honed an app that meets the needs of ordinary beachgoers. Safer Seas and Rivers Service claims to be “the only national water quality service keeping you in the loop with what’s happening where in our waters.”

The app gives real-time updates according to a user’s location. I plugged in one of my local beaches, Southport, and was told United Utilities discharged sewage at 7.40am two days ago. No swim for me, then. It also provides information on surf conditions, wind direction, tide times, beach activities and facilities and lifeguard services.

The app was recently enhanced to cover rivers and streams, including the Avon, Dee and Wharfe, with more added this summer. SAS is also asking users to report any illness, as some apps did at the peak of the pandemic.

Following reports of sewage discharges at Porthtowan on the north Cornwall coast, SAS launched a text alert service in 2010 to notify surfers. Initially, just two Cornish beaches were covered; a year later, 50 beaches were included. Three years later, a mobile app was launched, covering 260 beaches in England and Wales.

Porth Towan beach, Porthtowan, North Cornwall, England, United Kingdom, Europe.
Following reports of sewage discharges at Porthtowan on the north Cornwall coast, SAS launched a text alert service in 2010 to notify surfers - Moment Open/Getty

As coverage expanded, SAS managed to secure access to Pollution Risk Forecasts, which are based on water samples and issued weekly by the UK’s regulators (Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales) during the bathing season.

In 2020, for the first time, app users were empowered to take direct action on water quality and email their MP when they see a notification issued for their favourite beach or river. By the end of 2022, SAS had data for 424 locations including inland waterways.

“The app uses real-time data from a combination of sources,” says SAS projects officer Annie McKelvey, who led the design of the app. “Most water companies provide us with information via an email alert which is intended for beach owners and local authorities. We’ve developed a system that reads these emails automatically and therefore allows us to operate a real-time system.”

She says transparency is an ongoing issue. “South West Water publishes storm overflow data, but they do not share this with us, despite several attempts from SAS to access it. Without access, it’s difficult for us to say how accurate the reporting is.

“Instead of real-time storm overflow data, we are notified when a beach is impacted, according to their model. This is a barrier of transparency as we’re not notified of each discharge from an impacting overflow.

“Southern Water and Thames Water provide SAS with precise storm overflow data which allows us to give more information via the app. It’s a much better way for us to read the data and it’s more reliable. The reporting from Southern Water hasn’t been perfect and whilst we work with them to interpret all alerts correctly, there are occasions when we miss alerts for various reasons.”

Annie McKelvey (left) and Josh Harris (right) from Surfers Against Sewage
Annie McKelvey (left) and Josh Harris (right) from Surfers Against Sewage

When Surfers Against Sewage was founded in 1990, it was very much a surfing collective. “We were a small group of surfers fighting back to clean up the sea so we wouldn’t get sick doing the thing we loved,” says Josh Harris, head of communications.

“But we’ve grown and evolved since then and now we’re a nationwide community, connected by our love of the ocean, who not only fight against sewage pollution, but plastic, industrial exploitation and the climate emergency too. We like to say that, today, we are more than surfers, and it’s about more than sewage. We’re here because of the ocean, so let’s fight for it.”

In a recent survey of 10,000 app users, 15 per cent said they were surfers. Since SAS started to record downloads in April 2021, 210,000 people have used the app. Since launching the latest version app in July, there have been 86,000 active users.

It’s no longer a surfer-only service. “We see the primary function of the app as providing a free public health information service,” says Harris.

“The app is used by a wide range of water sports clubs to aid decisions on the safety of entering the water.

“Its secondary function is as a campaigning tool, allowing users to take direct action in calling for an end to sewage pollution and improved water quality by emailing local MPs and water company CEOs when there is a notification issued for their local or favourite beach.

A surfer turns along the face of a wave at Porthtowan beach in Cornwall
We not only fight against sewage pollution, but plastic, industrial exploitation and the climate emergency too, says Josh Harris - Moment RF/Getty

“When a pollution notification is issued for a location, the option to contact the local MP automatically appears in the profile. The platform will then prepare an email that can be personalised and sent out to local MPs.

“We need politicians to put in place laws that protect and improve the quality of the ocean and reduce pollution released into seas and rivers.”

Personal sickness reports uploaded to the app also “help the fight against the dirty deeds in the water industry, give us evidence for the impact of sewage on health, and allow us to take our case to the Government and inspire action,” he adds.

The recent furore over river water conditions have thrust campaigning groups into the media spotlight.

“It’s fantastic to see the public coming out, en-masse, in support of protecting our rivers and seas,” says Harris. “We’ve been fighting against sewage pollution since the early 90s but awareness of this issue, and the momentum for change, has never been higher.

“Our campaigns are always led by the evidence but what makes us unique is that we gather this at a grassroots level. Whether it’s community water quality testing or local beach cleans, our local supporters gather data which fuels the fire of our campaigns. We like to say we campaign from the beachfront to the frontbench.”


Other essential apps for a trip to the beach

Beach Check UK

To help you find out if a beach is crowded. In some areas the app also offers information about whether a lifeguard is on duty and whether the beach allows dogs.

App: englandscoast.com/en/blog/beach-check-uk-app

RNLI Pager

Updates on launches and station info for the RNLI enthusiast.

App: apps.apple.com/gb/app/rnli-pager/id1100588214

Nowca Wild Swimming

Safety-oriented app for wild swimmers produced by the National Open Water Coaching Association.

App: nowca.org/nowca-wild

Find me a Beach

More than 250 beach reviews, containing information on parking, toilets and dog-walking restrictions.

App: findmeabeach.co.uk/features

UK Tides

All you ever needed to know about neaps and springs, highs and lows, moon phases and sunsets.

App: uktides.app

Magic Seaweed

Because surfing is not only about sewage! This popular app provides the latest weather, wave and tide reports.

App: apps.apple.com/gb/app/msw-surf-forecast/id322103952


Are you concerned about pollution in the seas? Do you welcome initiatives such as Surfers Against Sewage? Please join the conversation in the comments below