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Sewage spills cause river in seaside town to be declared ‘ecologically dead’

A river in a UK seaside town has been declared “ecologically dead” following a series of sewage spills, a local activist group says.

Flowing through the Dorset town of Lyme Regis and into the sea, the River Lim saw a three-fold increase in the amount of human waste pumped into it in less than a year.

According to River Lim Action Group, South West Water (SWW) discharged 2,200 hours’ worth of sewage spills into the river in 2022. A once lively ecosystem, it was famously populated with trout, eels and kingfishers.

The River Lim flows through the Dorset town of Lyme Regis and into the sea (Peter Holmes/Wikimedia Commons)
The River Lim flows through the Dorset town of Lyme Regis and into the sea (Peter Holmes/Wikimedia Commons)

Monitoring the river’s sewage levels alongside the Westcountry Rivers Trust, the team detected high levels of E.Coli in the water, which, at designated swimming beaches, should not exceed 88 units per 100 millilitres in a given sample.

Comparatively, recreational waters – such as rivers – should not record more than 406 units per 100 millilitres.

Voluntary monitoring of the river’s water quality has been taking place since 2022. The lowest reading was 1,700 units per 100ml, and the highest skyrocketing up to 56,000.

Retired freshwater ecologist Graham Roberts, of the River Lim Action Group, concluded in a recent survey of the river that there were few invertebrates remaining.

According to Mr Roberts, a healthy river would experience “hundreds and thousands” of shrimps during a three-minute survey. However, this research found none at all.

“The river is in an absolutely disgusting state”, he told The Times. “It has a real knock-on effect on the rest of the animals in the area. There just won’t be enough food.”

“We were lucky enough to have an otter move in recently but I worry that by ingesting the sewage it will become infertile or, in the worst-case scenario, it will die”, Mr Roberts added.

Meanwhile, River Lim Action Group member Vicki Elcoate labelled the river “iconic”, noting that it’s “highly visible to thousands of people”.

“A lot of us were concerned about it and there were no plans to clear it”, Ms Elcoate told Dorset Live.

“Everybody can see what’s going on and our problems are fixable. It is literally a problem with sewage.”

South West Water told The Independent that its priority remains “to protect the environment”, confirming that it is cooperating with the River Lim Group.

“Our priority is always to protect the environment as much as we possibly can. However, there’s always more we can do and we are constantly striving to improve”, a statement from a SWW spokesperson read.

“We are working closely with the River Lim Group jointly to understand all impacts on the River and we will continue to play our part.

“The Group have shared their appreciation for the amount of support we are giving specifically to this. The EA are the organisation that provides information on the state of the environment for the River Lim, both in terms of its quality but also reasons why a river may be impacted.”

In April, the Liberal Democrats demanded an end to sewage discharges near the UK’s Blue Flag beaches, calling for a ban on water company executive bonuses at firms guilty of breaching the permits.

Notably, of the top five worst sewage discharges near Blue Flag beaches in mainland England, four are in Devon – at Stoke Fleming, Meadfoot, Sidmouth Town and Exmouth. Flowing through the Devon-Dorset border, the River Lim isn’t far away.

Leader Ed Davey remarked that the government is as “guilty” as the “water companies” in allowing these practices to continue.

"Britain’s beaches are being ruined by profiteering water companies getting away with dumping sewage as the government has failed to act for years. Whilst these firms have been raking in multi-billion pound profits, people have been left to swim in raw sewage”, Mr Davey said.