Surfers and other water users at Edinburgh’s popular Portobello Beach are so frustrated with the inadequacy of monitoring for sewage that they have set up their own group to regularly test the water.

The Porty Water Collective, a collaboration of “individuals, organisations, community groups and charities all committed to protecting the blue spaces in and around Portobello” will be launched at a Paddle-out Protest at the Edinburgh town beach today.

The group is not alone. A growing wave of citizen scientists, alarmed by what they see in their nearby rivers or sea are taking testing into their own hands. From the River Almond to the Dreel Burn in Fife, locals are sampling the waters.

The Porty Water Collective's plan is to supplement the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency's regular testing for sewage-related bacteria, with an independent, community-led water quality monitoring and data collection service, “publicly available and easily accessible to the community and displayed at the Figgate Burn”.

“Knowledge is power,” the group said. “Our aim is to collect water-quality data every day in Portobello and display that publicly. This will give us clear data to use in any future negotiations and will also help inform the local community as to the scale of the issue.”

Charlie Allanson-Oddy, a Surfers Against Sewage rep and one of the group’s founders, said, “We are seeking to heighten awareness of water quality and build a profile in the hope of generating change at infrastructure level and governmental.”

Last year, Mr Allanson-Oddy produced the sole Scottish contribution to a Surfer’s Against Sewage Water Quality report which tested for sewage at key sites around the UK. He was shocked to find that the stretch of beach where the Figgate burn emerges, one of two sites he tested, was the worst in the entire report.

“I chose the Figgate burn,” he said, “because it runs through the nation’s capital. It was the worst of all the areas that were tested because every single test was dangerous and unsafe levels for E Coli. There was no other venue that had these levels with no break.”

READ MORE: Scotland shockingly behind England in monitoring sewage releases

Portobello Beach is monitored by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) at two sites – Portobello Central and Portobello West - 18 times throughout the bathing waters season, which is from June to September.  The West Beach, closer to the Figgate Burn, has never had a rating of anything more than ‘sufficient’ as a bathing waters site.

Because SEPA samples are taken on set dates, Mr Allanson-Oddy pointed out, water is often not tested at key moments of likely sewage outfall – for instance after heavy rain.

“We’re hoping to be able to be more flexible. SEPA have set dates for their testings – because of their own lack of resources I assume – and what we’re hoping to do by building this collective of volunteers testing is responsively test after heavy rainfall.”

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The Floater, a specially designed Surfers Against Sewage board

With the rise of wild swimming, increasingly people are getting into the water at Portobello all seasons of the year - not just to swim but also for paddleboarding and other activities. Hence, the collective would also like to see the site declared a “year-round bathing destination” so that SEPA water testing and display of that information has to be conducted year-round.

The group is inviting volunteers to get involved in monitoring and hopes to inspire other communities around the UK, by providing a model that can be copied. 

Among the Porty Water Collective’s calls are for “compulsory investment in antiquated infrastructure not fit for modern purpose”, “compulsory reporting whenever there is a sewage discharge and for this to be publicly available” and “punitive fines when sewage is discharged into waterways”.

According to SEPA, however, Scotland's bathing water is now at its "highest ever" quality. 

Nathan Critchlow-Watton, head of water and planning at SEPA, said: “This year 98% of our bathing waters meet the required standards and a record-breaking number are rated as ‘excellent’."

“We welcome the increased public interest in the environment we all share, and the growing aspiration – heard loud and clear - to make our water environment the best it can be. That means also welcoming the difficult conversations and challenges that this brings. 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 that will be required to upgrade it means focussing effort where it will have the biggest benefit for the environment and communities."

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

READ MORE: Scotland's waters sewage-free? You're kidding

But it's not just bathing water and the dangers to swimmers of sewage that concerns communities.  There are multiple reasons behind the growing wave of groups across Scotland who have, like the Porty Water Collective, felt driven to do their own testing.

Among them is Save Our Shore Leith, a group of concerned locals living along the stretch of the river before the Water of Leith basins reach the port.

Worried about the levels of sewage being released into the silt that accumulates in the river as it approaches the port, they did their own testing for human sewage-related bacteria.

“As a result,” said Jim Jarvie, a campaigner and member of the group, “we know that there is sewage in the water and sewage-related bacteria in the water."

As yet, he said, SEPA has not done its own testing for these human-sewage bacteria, though they have tested for the bacteria associated with agricultural run-off. 

 “We have, here, private citizens testing the water, finding evidence of sewage and then not being able to get SEPA and Scottish Water to come down and test for that and give us an assessment of the risk. We’ve also no idea from the Scottish Government how much sewage we’re meant to put up with - no guidance on what the risk.”

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.

Jim Jarvie at the Water of Leith

Mr Jarvie described the situation in Leith as a "public health hazard" and expressed his anger at the fact locals were having to pay for such testing themselves.

Not far from Leith, in Midlothian, is another group of locals who started their own testing process after concern over sewage releases close to Almondell Country Park, prompted them to form the River Almond Action Group (RAAG). 

A concern in the area was over whether it was still safe to swim, paddle, or even let their dogs play, in a stretch of the River Almond which had formerly been used for those purposes by locals.

Dr Pippa Scott, a member of RAAG recalled, "The question that people were asking in the community was, 'Is it safe to go in the water?' We’d been asking this to SEPA and we’d been asking this to the local council and we were just getting passed around. So in the dearth of information, we decided to figure it out for ourselves."

The group initially did grassroots testing for nitrates and phosphates (which often indicate agricultural run-off or sewage treatment effluent), as well as faecal coliform bacteria.

"Phosphates were high," said Dr Scott, "But also faecal coliforms were positive, though to be honest all rivers will demonstrate some evidence of that and that's because the tests are really designed to detect for drinking water rather than recreational use." 

A challenge for the group, said Dr Scott, has also been that faecal coliform tests have to be sent off to a laboratory within 24 hours and kept cold.

She said: "The nitrates and phosphates are interesting in terms of the ecology of the river, but the faecal coliform one is, am I gonna get sick if I go for a swim? And that’s one that’s difficult to do without any lab treatment or access." 

Since then RAAG have gone on to work with scientists at Heriot-Watt University on more extensive testing of the river. They also, in a bid to obtain regular monitoring of the water, applied for bathing water status for the stretch of the river - though this was rejected.

Dr Scott said: "SEPA wasn’t doing what we felt was their duty which was monitoring the quality of the river. That's why we did those tests and, in the end, what we wanted to do was to make sure that any testing that we did do was robust."

HeraldScotland: Kate Anstruther of Anstruther Improvements Association testing the Dreel Burn

Kate Anstruther at the Dreel Burn

Yet another group, the Anstruther Improvements Association, in Fife, started up when a sewage alert for the Dreel Burn impacted their annual rubber duck race 2019 - and, over the past year, have begun carrying out water testing and monitoring the health of the burn.

The project is community-run, though it has received guidance and help from Forth Rivers Trust and funding from the National Lottery, which has also paid for a community development officer.

This weekend, a team of nine volunteers will conduct their fifth water sampling and water testing session - a process that involves some of the volunteers going out to five sites along the burn, where they test for pH, conductivity and water temperature on site and then bringing samples back to Dreel Halls, where they are tested for ammonia, nitrates and phosphates. Coffee and cake will also be consumed.

"It's a great group of volunteers," said Kate Anstruther, one of the association's trustees. "One of them is even a retired SEPA scientist, who did testing in her working life. She was so excited. She got her lab coat out again."

The testing, however, has not provided quick answers - and the group are in it for the long haul. 

"We don't yet know," Ms Anstruther added, "what the main issue is. It’s such early days. What we’re doing is baseline monitoring and I think we need a year’s worth of data, because you need to go through all the seasons.”  

"I’m not a scientist – but even I get really excited when we’re doing the testing. It’s so good to get a result.  You feel like you are part of something bigger. We’ve got people of all different ages – from a high-school student to retired people and everything in between."