The Edinburgh river that starred in BBC’s recent Winterwatch is, as it reaches the port, a “health hazard” – not only littered with plastic waste but also an accumulation point for silt and sewage, say campaigners,

Groups are now calling for full monitoring of the sewage overflows in this stretch of the Water of Leith as well as an increase in monitoring across Scotland.

Spokesperson for Save Our Shore Leith (SOS Leith) Jim Jarvie said: “When we found that sewage outlets weren’t being monitored we were horrified.”

In England, there is a plan to have all combined sewage outflows fitted with monitors by the end of this year and one water company, Thames Water, following pressure by campaigners and public, is providing a real-time interactive map showing sewage release. But there is no such comprehensive plan for Scotland.

SOS Leith complains that in the problematic area of the Water of Leith basin the pipes designed to release untreated sewage into waterways during storm floods are not being monitored at all – and it has been impossible to retrieve information from Sepa (Scottish Environment Protection Agency) and Scottish Water about when and what is being released into the water.

HeraldScotland: Leith resident and campaigner Jim Jarvie at Rennie's Isle where waste has built up. STY ALLAN.. Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..24/1/23.

The Water of Leith, where it nears the lock system-enclosed port, has a distinctive set of problems. The flow of the river has slowed, dropping an ever-growing layer of silt on its bed. SOS Leith says that because of this, the river runs more like a canal. It has silted up over decades so that what was once seven metres deep at some points is now, in places, only a few centimetres in depth. Litter aggregates in rafts on the surface of the water and, as Winterwatch recently showed, has to be regularly cleared by volunteers.

But it is what is beneath the surface that concerns Mr Jarvie most. “Silt has built up over the last 60 years and still seems to be building up and we’ve got sewage outlets which release into the water, but then it’s not moving,” he said.

Rather than flowing out to sea it is collecting. Mr Jarvie added: “This is not how combined sewage overflows (CSOs) are meant to work. CSO discharges are meant to flow out to sea, but here we are concerned that discharges are aggregating in the silt. We are concerned that we have a public health hazard that’s been building up over decades with the silt being part sewage.”

READ MORE: What is Scottish Water doing to stop sewage entering rivers?

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THERE are 65 CSOs along the river and eight of them, he said, are pumping into the silt. Despite repeated requests, some through freedom of information, SOS Leith has been unable to access information about their releases. It believes some have previously been monitored.

A freedom of information request the group sent to Scottish Water asked what progress had been made towards upgrading and monitoring these eight CSOs. The reply it received said: “I can confirm these unsatisfactory intermittent discharges (UIDs), along with another 15 confirmed UIDs in the Water of Leith, have been promoted into our investment planning process. We are currently investigating these assets for feasibility and costs, and anticipate that this will be complete by March 2024.”

But SOS Leith says these “vague answers” are not good enough.

Public awareness of the ubiquitous problem of sewage releases into waterways has increased in recent years, particularly in England which has seen fierce campaigning from the private companies responsible.

Scotland’s publicly-run Scottish Water has not been the focus of such intense scrutiny and criticism although Scottish Water reported 10,763 spills in 2021 – a figure that relates only to the small percentage of CSOs the body already monitors.

‘Priority’ waters

WHILE England plans to monitor all CSOs, Scotland has a goal of only 1,000 new event and duration monitors where CSOs are discharging “to the highest priority waters”.

This represents a fraction of the total of 3,700 CSOs across the country. Scottish Water’s “improving urban waters” route map also promises to “examine the costs and benefits of extending monitor coverage to lower priority locations”.

“But without monitoring, how will Scottish Water and Sepa know which waters are highest prioirity?” asked Mr Jarvie.

“If England is going to be monitoring a lot more CSOs than Scotland, what does that say about the situation here when the English companies that are privately owned and giving out dividends to shareholders, whereas in Scotland it’s a publicly-owned body, accountable to taxpayers, Scottish Government?

“It looks as if the private sector in England is more efficient than the public sector in Scotland.”

Alison Baker, director of Forth Rivers Trust, echoed the call for greater monitoring. She said: “If we don’t know what is being discharged, when it occurs and how much from our sewage systems, how do we know what damage it might be causing – both locally and cumulatively?

“Monitoring should be routine on all discharges. Without it, we have no evidence on which to discuss solutions.”

A Scottish Water spokesperson said the body was “committed to investing in improving the country’s water environment”.

“We are in the process of developing solutions to upgrade and monitor 24 combined sewer overflows along the Water of Leith in addition to those which have already been upgraded. While we recognise that monitoring is important, we have focused on improving the performance of CSOs which have the biggest impact on the environment."

“The water quality in Scotland is considerably higher than elsewhere in the UK, with two-thirds of Scotland’s waters already meeting good status and 99 per cent of bathing waters passing stringent environmental standards.”

READ MORE: Busted Flush: My journey through Scotland's sewage

‘Reduce impact’

A SPOKESPERSON for the Scottish Government said: “The Scottish Government takes the matter of sewage pollution very seriously and works closely with Sepa and Scottish Water to reduce its impacts on the water environment.”

“Scottish Water is working to prioritise where monitors should be located to protect amenity, support public health, improve communication about spill events and make better decisions on investment priorities – including on further monitoring. Water quality is in good or better condition in 87% of Scotland’s waters, with 66% of our water environment achieving ‘good’ ecological status overall.

“This compares well against the European average and to England where the equivalent figure is 16%.”