An urgent investigation is under way into a drop in water quality off a popular stretch of Southsea seafront.

The investigation, involving the Environment Agency, Southern Water and Portsmouth City Council, is seeking to discover what is causing the problem.

If it is not fixed, people could be officially advised not to enter the water at a popular section of beach to the west of South Parade Pier.

The risk will be discussed on 25 July by the council’s ruling Cabinet, which will consider a report into the issue.

The council is part of a working group headed by the EA that also includes Southern Water and local businesses. So far, the group’s investigation has not identified the source, or sources, of the contamination. Experts have been considering possible sources such as Southern Water’s sewage outfalls, contaminated groundwater, the council’s coastal defence work or possible leaks from the pier, but evidence has not been conclusive.

The impact of sewage releases by Southern Water is an obvious and very serious concern, but there are no overflows in the immediate area. The coastal defence work started after the deterioration in water quality began and is very unlikely to be the cause. Tests have shown low levels of groundwater contamination. Main sewerage pipes seem to be working properly, so the main focus is now on smaller pipes connecting to them.

Portsmouth has two official bathing beaches – Eastney and Southsea East. Eastney has an “excellent” water quality rating from the national regulator, the Environment Agency (EA). This is the top rating.

The water quality at Southsea East is judged using a specific sampling point to the west of South Parade Pier. It has gradually declined since an “excellent” rating in 2019. After the 2022 season it was given a “sufficient” rating by the EA, which it now holds.

If the deterioration continues, Southsea East could be rated as “poor” by the EA after the 2023 testing period (May to October). A “poor” rating – the bottom classification – would mean people being advised against bathing at a section of beach from May next year.

If a “poor” rating were in place, the council would be responsible for putting up signs giving the EA’s advice against bathing. Although the term “bathing” strictly means “swimming”, the advice would apply to all water users. It is likely that the section of beach covered by this advice would be west of South Parade Pier, up to the Pyramids. Sampling east of the pier indicates better water quality.

To provide more information, the council has been sampling seawater at various sites every week since February. Its results show a similar pattern of decline at Southsea East and broadly agree with results from sampling by the EA and Southern Water.

The council has also provided posters along the seafront that give almost-daily updates on sewage releases, using Southern Water’s Beachbuoy service.

The council is hoping to provide an electronic display on the seafront with similar information, and is talking to Southern Water about financial help with this.

Cllr Steve Pitt, Leader of the Council, said: “This is an issue where all organisations involved are working together, as urgently as possible, to find out what’s going on and fix the problem.

“The cleanliness of our seawater is rightly of huge concern to local people and the council shares that concern.

“The EA is the national regulator for bathing waters and Southern Water is responsible for waste water. We’re doing everything we can to help them, and we’re carrying out our own research to back up their work.

“Our role is also to keep people informed, and be as open as possible about this issue.

“We all want to avoid a ‘poor’ rating anywhere on our marvellous seafront. If we do get one, we will do everything we can to get the rating back up as soon as possible. But we will also be stressing that it would only apply to a relatively small part of our fantastic long area of beach.

“We know people need information on the state of our waters. To supplement what’s online, we’re providing information with posters along the seafront at present. We would like to have a digital display on the seafront, and are talking to Southern Water about funding for this.”

 

SOUTHSEA EAST WATER QUALITY – FREQUENTLY-ASKED QUESTIONS

What is the current concern?

Portsmouth has two official bathing beaches – Eastney and Southsea East. Eastney has an “excellent” water quality rating from the national regulator, the Environment Agency (EA). This is the top rating.

The water quality at Southsea East is judged using a specific sampling point to the west of South Parade Pier. It has gradually declined from an “excellent” rating in 2019. At the end of the 2022 season it was given a “sufficient” rating by the EA, which it holds now.

If the deterioration continues, Southsea East could be rated as “poor” by the EA after the 2023 testing period (May to October). A “poor” rating – the bottom classification – would mean people would be advised against bathing at a section of beach from May 2024.

There’s more information on the EA’s work on their Southsea East page.

 

Where is Southsea East?

The Environment Agency samples from a point west of South Parade Pier, opposite the eastern end of Burgoyne Gardens, Clarence Esplanade. They stress that their scientific conclusions only apply to the water at this point.

 

What would happen if a “poor” rating was in place?

The council would be responsible for putting up signs giving the EA’s advice against bathing. Although the term “bathing” strictly means “swimming”, the advice would apply to all water users. It’s likely that the section of beach covered by this advice would be west of South Parade Pier, up to the Pyramids. Sampling east of the pier indicates better water quality.

 

What is causing the problem?

Urgent efforts are continuing to understand what is responsible for the results at Southsea East. There may be one cause, or many may be involved, combining like a jigsaw. Potential sources of pollution that have been discussed include the Canoe Lake sewage outfall, possible leaks from the pier (including food waste), the council’s coastal defence work or contaminated groundwater. Even birds roosting under the pier have been considered as a source of pollution.

 

What conclusions have been reached?

The council is part of a working group headed by the EA that also includes Southern Water and local businesses. The group is working hard to solve the issue as quickly as possible, but there are no definite answers yet. The impact of sewage releases by Southern Water is an obvious and very serious concern, but there are no overflows in the immediate area. The coastal defence work started after the deterioration in water quality began and is very unlikely to be the cause. Tests have shown low levels of groundwater contamination. Main sewerage pipes seem to be working properly, so the main focus is now on smaller pipes connecting to them.

 

What is the council doing?

The council has limited powers in this situation. It’s working hard with other organisations involved, to help Southsea East avoid a “poor” rating. This mainly means helping the regulator responsible for classifying bathing waters – the EA – and Southern Water, which is responsible for waste water disposal. Other organisations it is working with include Havant Borough Council, Langstone Harbour Board and the owners of South Parade Pier.

The council’s major role is to provide information and keep people up to date on this vital issue for the city. This is why it is being open about the situation at Southsea East. It’s a major concern for the council’s Cabinet – see the report to the 25 July meeting.

To provide more information and to help the EA, the council has been sampling seawater at various sites every week since February. Our results show a similar pattern of decline at Southsea East and broadly agree with results from sampling by the EA and Southern Water.

To supplement information online, we’ve provided posters along the seafront that give almost-daily updates on sewage releases, using Southern Water’s Beachbuoy service.

We’re hoping to provide an electronic display on the seafront with similar information, and are talking to Southern Water about financial help with this.