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Testing The Water

Testing the WaterReaders will know we've banged on and on about not enough being done to fix the bathing waters problem on the Fylde coast, most recently in 'Bathing Waters Set to Fail'

We still predict that notices warning folk not to bathe or paddle in the sea will be going up next year, probably on all the beaches along the Fylde's coast - from Lytham to Fleetwood.

However, it looks as though new work that is now planned (but not yet being made very public) by United Utilities might just about save the day in five years time as far as Blackpool's beaches are concerned.

Even with what's planned, we think it's now still too late to stop the warning notices having to be put up at Blackpool for each of the next 4 or 5 years, but it might just be enough to avoid Blackpool having to implement a permanent prohibition on bathing and paddling in five or six years time.

Sadly, we don't think the work that is planned will do anything much at all for St Annes beaches, and as things stand today, we predict both of St Annes bathing beaches (St Annes and St Annes North) will have warning notices saying not to bathe or paddle next year, and then a permanent prohibition on bathing in five years time.

We don't think Fylde's officers or members (perhaps with the exception of Cllr Mulholland who chairs the Community Focus Scrutiny Committee) have made anything like enough fuss about the problems on our beaches. It almost seems like they accepted what they were told was inevitable from the start.

It was never inevitable.

But it was always going to be costly for United Utilities and, being a commercial water company since water was privatised in the UK, they're likely to need a bit more persuading to spend on what some people (mistakenly) think of as being the 'lesser' resorts like St Annes.

We don't think anything like enough persuasion was applied, and we think Fylde Borough is going to pay the price.

We'd be delighted to be wrong on this, but as things stand at present we don't think we are.

So what's happening at Blackpool that might solve at least their longer term problem?

Well it's all to do with what looks like (and is) a drilling rig that has been sitting off the Glitterball artwork at South Shore for a few weeks, and is destined for Bispham / Cleveleys when it's finished there.

Test drilling off Harrowside, Blackpool

You can get a clue what it's up to from the photograph which shows the huge combined sewer outfall running into the sea, and the 'drilling rig' sitting next to it.

Thankfully, the drilling rig isn't about fracking and shale gas. It is about the condition and content of the sea bed.

The nice bland press release put out by United Utilities said it was part of a new five year project to help improve the quality of the bathing waters on the Fylde coast.

They said it was going to help the company plan how it can construct parts of a new sewer network, and that the rig was assembled in Morecambe and was going first to South Shore, and two weeks later it is expected to go just off Anchorsholme Park where it will stay for about three months.

A spokesman for United Utilities told the Gazette "While sewer improvement alone won't solve the problem with bathing waters we want to make sure we're playing our part"

When we hear motherhood and apple pie quotes like that in a press statement we immediately want to know what's really going on, because the official line isn't telling us, or at least, it's only telling us part of the story.

Time for some research.

Usually something like this would require planning permission, but we didn't recall seeing anything about such permission being applied for.

It turns out that there is a separate planning process for 'seaborne' applications.

They go to a body called the 'Marine Management Organisation' (who sound like a new QUANGO that we've not come across before, so we checked)

They say 'We license, regulate and plan marine activities in the seas around England and Wales so that they're carried out in a sustainable way', and that 'MMO is an executive non-departmental public body of the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs.'

So it seems to be a sort of 'off balance sheet' government department.

Anyway, these are the folks who give out permissions, so they're the folk that United Utilities had to apply to.

Like a council, the MMO maintain a public register which has all the application details they receive, and the decisions they take.

The quick and dirty answer to what's going on (perhaps literally this time) is that because the sewage treatment works do not have the capacity to cope with Combined Sewer Overflows in times of heavy rain, it is not possible (unless more treatment works were to be built of course) to be sure you can treat the sewage before it enters this pipe and make it safe to return to the water.

At this point, we ought to make a strong argument about not building any more houses until their developers have paid for another water treatment works, but we'd be digressing again, and that's a story in itself anyway.

That's, not going to happen anytime soon, so these days, the usual answer to a shortage of treatment works is to build huge underground tanks that act as temporary sewage reservoirs from which sewage can be pumped to the existing treatment works at times of lower demand.

That has happened quite a bit.

But the latest plan is a slightly different solution.

It is to build both a new hundred foot deep sewage storage tank AND a much longer sewage pipe out into the sea at Anchorsholme, (so the effluent is dumped three miles offshore), and to improve the existing outfall by the Glitterball at Harrowside.

We imagine the idea is that, by the time the sewage and the bugs find their way back to the beaches (if it ever does), water organisms, and especially the ultra-violet rays in sunlight will kill off the bacteria that are being measured, so there won't be any (or at least not as many) in the water on the beaches.

Ergo, the results will pass muster and bathing prohibition might be avoided.

We note with sadness that this is a solution that moves the problem rather than solving it.

We're still likely to be dumping sewage into the sea, but it might just tick the necessary box to avoid 'bathing prohibition' signs.

Considering the permission being sought at this time is only for testing for the existence buried pipes and cables (wouldn't be a good idea to chop through the internet line that comes ashore on the Fylde coast from the USA via Dublin would it?), and some sample 'geological' drilling, the application itself goes into a huge amount of detail - much further than we would ever have imagined, so United Utilities have had an awful lot of hoops to jump through just to get permission to test for what they might be doing in the next few years.

Readers wanting the full SP on this can visit the 'Marine Management Organisation' website, click on 'Marine Case Management System' and use the public application register and look for application number MLA/2014/00134. You can put 'United Utilities' as the 'applicant 'in the Advanced Search Box' to reduce the number of results a bit.

The application form confirms what we have been saying for ages now about bathing water failures (and remember, this is United Utilities official wording)

"The revised Bathing Water Directive, applying from 2015, has standards twice as tight as current standards. Therefore predictions indicate that seven of the eight bathing waters along the Fylde Coast will be classed as poor. United Utilities (UU) will be investing in assets across the Fylde Coast region in order to improve bathing water quality, these include two outfalls at Anchorsholme and Harrowside."

'Poor' means signs warning people not to go in the water from next year.

"Likley bathing water result

The application also has a very helpful summary.

It notes that "the Environment Agency has identified four Unsatisfactory Intermittent Discharges (UIDs) in the Poulton area leading to predictions that by 2015 the majority of the Fylde bathing waters will be classified as ‘poor’

To resolve these UIDs, additional capacity is required to reduce the amount of water entering the sewers at times of heavy storms.

UU are investigating solutions that meet new bathing water directives for Blackpool.

[We note that investigation is specific to Blackpool, and does not mention Lytham St Annes]

Such a solution can be accomplished by a new long sea outfall at Anchorsholme that effectively disperses intermittent storm water discharges.

Also, maintenance of Harrowside Outfall during AMP6 is essential to restore this asset to full operation and ensure the impact on the bathing waters of
the infrequent discharge is minimised."

AMP6 stands for the capital expenditure Asset Management Programme No 6, and, for the next five years, UK water companies are expected to be under increased pressure to improve their relative efficiency whilst achieving improved wastewater effluent quality. This need is being driven by regulators, customers' expectations and increased competition within the water industry.

During this period there needs to be work to fix the Harrowside sewer discharge which doesn't seem to be working properly, or at least it's not working at full capacity and to build a new tank at Anchorsholme and a new 3 mile sewer pipe.

The work involves

  • Demolition and removal of existing outfalls;
  • Construction of new outfalls and pumping station;
  • Refurbishment of the existing flow to the pumping station;
  • New connecting pipework;
  • A temporary works site.

in order to be able to discharge the wastewater.

But before construction, site investigation works are required and that's what's going on now. This will involve digging inspection pits, drilling sonic boreholes and the drilling of cable percussion boreholes. At Harrowside there will also be Cone Penetration Tests (CPTs) and at Anchorsholme a seismic refraction survey.

(That last bit sounded like explosions to us, similar in principle to the Cuadrilla drilling which unsettled folk around Kirkham and Wesham, the charges go off, and scientists measure the time it takes for the soundwaves to reflect back through the rocks - which gives information about the nature of the rocks). But in fact it's going to be a sledgehammer hitting a metal plate.

Having said that, 'sonic boreholes' might well involve some bangs as well and we're not sure how they work.

The applications have had to go into reams of studies because of the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive, and the UKs 'Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010' and the 'The Offshore Marine Conservation (Natural Habitats &c.) Regulations 2007' but the conclusion is that after they've taken account of what they can do to minimise the studying work, there will be no 'likely significant effects' so they can go ahead.

And indeed, the Marine Management Organisation has issued permission and work has begun.

We suspect that even if the eventual works cause habitat disruption they will be allowed to go ahead because they meet one of the very few 'exemptions' for the international habitat and bird regulations in that they are 'essential for human health and safety' and, unlike the hovercraft and barrage plans (which are commercial and not 'essential to human health and safety') the chances are this work will go ahead.

The plans were laid on 15 January this year, when United Utilities met with Natural England, the Environment Agency, Blackpool Borough Council, and the Marine Management Organisation, regarding the project.

One point we did think was interesting is that the public had not been consulted, and they had not even been invited to submit comments, and the project had not been advertised.

That's why the first anyone knew was when the drilling rig appeared.

We're told the Anchorsholme work will cost in the region of £90 million when completed in about five years time.

So if it works, we could see Blackpool escaping with five years of having to provide advice about not going into the water, and by avoiding a permanent prohibition on bathing if they're lucky.

We suspect United Utilities think that if they clean up Blackpool's beaches it will improve St Annes as well, (either that or they've given up on us) but we don't think so.

The reason for that is to do with the current drift and the direction that the sea flows around our part of the coast.

We've always been led to believe (by expert consultants) that there are two water flows, one coming down from the north, past Barrow and Morecambe and Lancaster to Fleetwood and Blackpool, and another from North Wales coming past Southport. These two 'water jetstreams' meet almost exactly at Squires Gate Lane, and as they meet, they push against each other - and this causes the flow to sweep back out to the deep sea.

That's why, even after years and years of sand extraction, St Annes beach is getting higher and higher.

It's not that long since you could see the jetty level where the boats used to tie up an St Annes Pier and it was just above ground level. But it disappeared beneath the sand a few years back, meaning that sand accretion at the Pier has grown by around 25 feet since the days that boats tined up at the Pier.

So for sand extraction, all we're doing is removing some of the sand that is being carried around the coast from North Wales and Southport as it passes St Annes before going our to sea again.

As long as these two main currents continue to meet and sweep out to sea at Squires Gate, very little from Blackpool's beaches is going to affect St Annes. That's more likely to be affected by water coming from Southport and the Estuary.

But we think St Annes problems are not so much to do with either of those, it's to do with the sewer overflow that exits Fairhaven Sewage Pumping Station.

United Utilities say they have fixed this and it no longer discharges. We hope they will forgive us when we say we've heard that said so many times and then seen discharges continue in storm conditions, that we find it difficult to believe.

So, stand by for the fuss all along the Fylde coast next year when the advice against going in the water goes up, and the NW coast is probably shown to be the dirtiest coast in the UK.

But we think if the new works go ahead, Blackpool might just escape having to erect bathing is prohibited notices in 2019/20 - but it's going to be a close run thing.

Dated:    5 Aug 2014


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