'There are wet wipes and sanitary products hanging like prayer flags all along the river'
Revealed: 25 'high priority' sewage outlets spewing waste into the Water of Leith, Firth of Forth, Rivers Almond, Avon and Esk
The water glistens in the sunshine as it pours into the row of tall glass tubes standing on the Shore outside Leith’s Malmaison hotel.
The ten tubes are an art installation, designed to highlight the cleanliness of the water running below in the Water of Leith. The mood among the small crowd gathered crowd on the quayside is upbeat, even celebratory. A television camera crew is there to record events.
Michelin Star chef Martin Wishart is one of the volunteers supping water drawn from the city river below. It has undergone “a small filtration process” before drinking - otherwise who would have signed off the health and safety approval? - but the message is clear.
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That was 2005. Sadly, it is impossible to imagine the stunt being repeated today. Who would queue up to drink the water today following all those headlines about sewage dumping in rivers?
Just how bad is the problem on the Water of Leith and in our other rivers? And what has changed in the intervening years?
A sewage problem
There is without doubt a significant issue with sewage spilling into the rivers in and around Edinburgh and the Lothians, and in particular the Water of Leith, the city’s main urban waterway. That has been recognised not just by environmental campaigners but by our publicly-owned water company Scottish Water too.
There are 65 sewage outflow pipes along the length of the Water of Leith alone. These are designed to allow both water from storm drains and sewage to flow into the river at times when the network cannot cope. It’s a good thing, up to a point, because the alternative is all that excess water flooding our homes.
It is a system that works fine when these outflows disgorge their contents once in a blue moon. There is growing concern, however, about the impact of constant new housebuilding and climate crisis-related severe weather on the city’s sewage network. The result is raw sewage pouring straight into our rivers and the sea far more regularly.
Out of the 65 Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs) on the Water of Leith, research by the Edinburgh Inquirer shows that 16 have been identified as causing problems with what is euphemistically known as Sewage Related Debris (SRD). All but one of these 16 has been classified as ‘high priority’.
Despite this, none of the outlets are currently monitored by Scottish Water, in stark contrast to almost blanket monitoring of CSOs in England and Wales. While the water company is drawing up plans to tackle the worst problems across the country, the extent and funding of the work is yet to be confirmed and is not due for completion before December, 2027.
There are similar issues elsewhere in the region with a further 36 CSOs identified as problematic in and around the Capital, on the Firth of Forth, River Almond, the Avon and the Esk, with ten of them classified as ‘high priority’.
The unpalatable truth is that without monitoring no one really knows the extent of the problem.
An oasis in the city
The Water of Leith is one of Edinburgh’s great natural treasures. Starting in the Pentlands, it snakes through the city for 12 miles from Balerno to the docks at Leith, offering a green corridor to walkers, cyclists and birders.
In Victorian times, it was literally a stinking open sewer, chock full of the city’s industrial and domestic waste.
Today, it is home to a wealth of wildlife. Otters are frequently seen, and their distinctive “squeak” heard, from just outside the Water of Leith Visitor Centre, next to busy Lanark Road, in Slateford.
If you are lucky and patient enough, you can spot kingfishers and as many as 80 other species of birds. The particularly eagle-eyed might spy eels in the water, or deer and foxes on the banks.
It is a beautiful place to spend some time, but also sometimes smelly and unsightly, like a sewer, depending on where and when you visit.
Vibrant and clean, but…
“The Water of Leith is more diverse, more vibrant and cleaner than it has ever been,” says Helen Brown, trust manager at the Water of Leith Conservation Trust, who has been working to protect and enhance the river for 21 years.
“When I think back to when I started here, and to 20 years before that when the conservation trust was set up, things are so much better.
“Having said that, over the last just two to three years, there has been a change. The number of CSO incidents is getting more frequent and their impact is getting greater.
There are two things that she points to as signs that all is not well on the cherished waterway.
“Not last summer but the summer before, the water turned green in Leith for the first time ever that I have known about. It was a natural algal bloom, but it is not natural for a river,” she says.
“It was a warm summer, the water levels were low and there were increased nutrients in the water and that caused the algal bloom. It wasn’t toxic, but it is a concern.
“The other things we see is when there are large surges of water like you see after a heavy downpour. When that happens, there are sanitary products and wet wipes hanging like prayer flags all along the river. Our volunteers spend literally months cleaning it all up.”
Tonnes of raw sewage
The environmental impact of sewage dumping can be significant. Raw sewage contains harmful bacteria and viruses which can be harmful to human health. It can harm ecosystems and campaigners fear that increasing levels may be a factor behind declining fish populations in many Scottish rivers.
According to SEPA data, Scottish Water dumped more than 1.3 million tonnes of raw sewage into waterways across the country in 2019, a 53% increase from 2017.
Water quality readings carried out on the Water of Leith, like most of the rest of the country’s waterways, generally remain high. That is both grounds for reassurance and a partial picture of everything that is going on.
Volunteers with Surfers Against Sewage, for example, have collected samples showing unsafe levels of E.coli in the Figgate Burn which runs into the sea at Portobello Beach, a short distance from where official testing found good quality water at Straiton Place.
There has been some progress. SEPA introduced new regulations in 2017 setting stricter limits on the amount of untreated sewage that could be discharged into waterways. Improvement has not been as fast as in England, however, where the practice has been significantly reduced following the introduction of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive in 1991.
Increased monitoring and reporting in England and Wales has driven higher standards and influenced public opinion. The Marine Conservation Society estimates that only 3.4% of Scotland’s storm overflows are currently monitored and reported on, compared to almost all such outlets in Wales and 91% in England.
Scottish Water is investing in tackling the problem - working under the scrutiny of environmental watchdog the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and a framework set out by the Scottish Government - although many say not enough and not fast enough.
It has committed up to £500m investment under its Improving Urban Water’s Routemap over the next four years, raising hopes that the Water of Leith could see significant action. It is also calling for a ban on plastic in single use wet wipes as part of its Nature Calls campaign.
“There is a lot of finger pointing at Scottish Water and the need for more investment,” says Helen Brown, “but ultimately it comes down to personal responsibility.
“We are putting things down our sinks that we really shouldn’t - mainly sanitary products and wet wipes, but even bits of floss get tangled up and end up in places where otters live.
“We need to be talking about what we are doing with sanitary products and whether we are disposing of them properly or just flushing down the toilet. There is a squeamishness around talking about the subject, but there really shouldn’t when it affects half the population for half their lives.”
Understanding the risks
Significantly increased monitoring and reporting is seen as key to driving change, both on the Water of Leith and more widely across Scotland.
“We need monitoring and we need to understand more about the incidents that occur when we have high peak flow events,” says Helen Brown.
“What is causing these incidents? Is it a blockage or something simple that can be fixed? Or is it a wholesale failure of our infrastructure?
“Something that is unique about the Water of Leith is that it isn’t tidal. Most rivers become tidal when they reach near the sea, and so any debris get washed into the sea and becomes a marine problem. That doesn’t happen in Leith.
“Sewage Related Debris is coming into the large basin and it is staying there. What is happening to it? Is it sinking to the bottom and leeching into the silt. Is it toxic? Is it a problem? We just don’t know.”
One thousand more monitors
SEPA and Scottish Water is committed to installing 1,000 monitors by the end of next year, with its initial focus being on bathing waters and shellfish waters.
“Water quality is at its highest level ever in Scotland, with more than 87% of watercourses having a good or better classification. The River Basin Management plan sets a water quality target for 92% of the water environment to be in good or better condition by 2027,” a SEPA spokesperson said.
“SEPA have worked for over 20 years to improve water quality - through targeted regulation and driving others to make significant, targeted investment.
“In many parts of Scotland our wastewater infrastructure, like other areas in the UK, is a legacy from the Victorian era. Recognising the huge national undertaking required to upgrade it means focusing effort where it will have the biggest impact for the environment and communities.
“We’re clear in our regulatory role in ensuring Scottish Water delivers against the Urban Waters Route Map, prioritising investment where it will most benefit. Scottish Water has committed to installing monitors on every CSO discharging to a Bathing or Shellfish Water by the end of 2024, with near real-time monitoring published for all these monitored CSOs by the end 2024. SEPA will ensure this commitment is delivered.
“While Scotland already enjoys some of the best water quality in Europe, SEPA is focused on ensuring improvement continues in the years ahead. We’ll do that by working together with public partners and regulated businesses, using our enforcement powers when necessary.”
Developing action plan
Scottish Water says it is carrying out significant investigations and scoping work to inform its plans for extra monitoring at a number of priority sites.
A Scottish Water spokesperson said: “By the end of 2024, we will have identified potential solutions for the highest priority assets to reduce the risk of sewage related debris ending up in the environment.
“Further to this, by the end of 2024 we will have installed 1000 monitors on the assets discharging into the highest priority waters. We will also have examined the costs and benefits of extending this programme to a further 2,600 CSOs across the country.
“In Edinburgh specifically, we are developing plans to improve a number of high priority CSOs and install monitors.”
Behind the curve
Campaigners are looking for far more, far more quickly to protect our waterways from further pollution.
Without significant further investment, Scottish Water looks likely to find itself running behind public opinion which has swung firmly behind much decisive action to tackle sewage dumping.
The Marine Conservation Society is calling for monitoring and reporting on 100% of Scotland’s sewerage network by 2026; progressive reduction targets for sewage spills; and filtering screens on all overflows to reduce sewage related litter entering the sea.
Scottish Government must tackle sewage pollution with better monitoring, reporting and progressive spill reduction targets.
Catherine Gemmell, Scotland Conservation Officer
In the meantime, the enormous task of clearing our riverbanks and coast line of unpleasant debris carries on for the dedicated volunteers of the Water of Leith Conservation Trust and the Marine Conservation Society.
And the questions about what deeper damage our waste may be causing to some of our most cherished natural assets will go unanswered.
Storm drains with ‘high priority’ sewage problems
Water of Leith (15)
Murrayfield, Corstorphine Road
Dean Village, Hawthorn Bank Lane
Dean Village, Saunders Street
Dean Village, Dean Terrace
Stockbridge, Arbouretum Avenue
Warriston, Recreation Ground
Warriston, Eyre Place
Warriston, St Marks Park
Leith, Keddie Gardens
Leith, Great Junction Street
Leith, Sheriff Brae
Leith, Shore Street
Leith, Tower Street/Malmaison Hotel
Firth of Forth (6)
Bo’ness, Snab Lane
Polmont, north side of M9
Polmont, south side of M9
Fauldhouse, Greenburn Road
Newbridge, Lochend Road
Bilston, Caerketton Avenue