Hay's Way: River Tweed sewage problem in Scottish Borders 'only going to get worse' as summer approaches

With summer round the corner, the banks of some of Scotland’s famous rivers will see crowds descending on them for fishing, swimming and other recreational activities in the warmer weather.

But a head ghillie on the River Tweed, one of the world’s famous salmon-fishing rivers, has his head in his hands after what he claims has been decades of warning about raw sewage leaking into a popular fishing and bathing spot.

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Scott Povey, who runs the Lower Pavillion beat, near Melrose, said in the 21 years he has worked on the river, there has been a lack of upgrading of sewage infrastructure to cater for the local population increase. It means year on year, he said he had to contact Scottish Water about sewage regularly leaking into the river where he takes paying visitors out to fish.

Local resident Cameron Davidson with head ghillie at Lower Pavilion Scott Povey Local resident Cameron Davidson with head ghillie at Lower Pavilion Scott Povey
Local resident Cameron Davidson with head ghillie at Lower Pavilion Scott Povey | Katharine Hay

While the ghillie confirmed four places in a two-mile stretch of the river were impacted by this leakage, Mr Povey said the same issue had been playing out in some of the 70 other beats on the river.

There is a growing frustration among river campaigners that water companies are allowed to discharge sewage via “combined sewer overflows” (CSOs), which they brand as “not fit for purpose”. CSO’s, which are designed to flush overly full drains into rivers and seas, are supposed to be used in exceptional circumstances.

Scottish Water said while investigations are ongoing into the leak near the Lower Pavilion beat, engineers have have raised and sealed the manhole where leaks are happening 'to reduce any further discharges.'Scottish Water said while investigations are ongoing into the leak near the Lower Pavilion beat, engineers have have raised and sealed the manhole where leaks are happening 'to reduce any further discharges.'
Scottish Water said while investigations are ongoing into the leak near the Lower Pavilion beat, engineers have have raised and sealed the manhole where leaks are happening 'to reduce any further discharges.' | Katharine Hay

Speaking to The Scotsman as part of Hay’s Way, Mr Povey accused Scottish Water, which is in charge of addressing sewage systems, of “taking the cheap and easy option” by reacting to leaks rather than addressing infrastructure. He insisted the public must be made more aware of the contamination of the river to push for more action to be taken.

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“The infrastructure throughout the whole of the Border towns is antiquated,” he said. “Villages are growing yearly and we are just filling the river with sewage daily and there’s kids swimming in it. If people knew how bad the water quality was, they would probably never come here.”

A spokeswoman for Scottish Water said the issue was not believed to be related to increased housing, and that engineers said the “intermittent overflowing” in the area Mr Povey was concerned about was related to ground water getting into the local sewer network.

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The spokeswoman added: “A project is currently being undertaken upstream on the pumping station that should reduce the risk of issues like this happening on this section of the network in the long term and further investigations are ongoing into any other potential causes.”

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Local resident Cameron Davidson said the community had raised the “less-than-satisfactory response” from Scottish Water and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) with local MP John Lamont. 

He said: “We have asked to be put in touch with someone who is accountable, so we can put this to bed once and for all. This has been happening for years, and we want it solved.

“This is our ghillie’s place of work. If this was your lawn, outside your office, would you want sewage bubbling up on a regular basis, to the extent children see ducks swimming in it and come and paddle in it? We’re not prepared to let this go because the situation is only going to get worse.”

New figures show more than 2,000 complaints about sewage in Scotland’s rivers, lochs and beaches were made to Sepa between 2019 and 2023. The Edinburgh, Lothian and Borders region saw the highest number of complaints – with 262 reports made in the period between July 2022 and September 2023.

A spokesperson for Sepa said: “We’re clear in our regulatory role in ensuring Scottish Water delivers against the Urban Waters Route Map, prioritising investment where it will have the most benefit. This includes investment in the development of improved monitoring infrastructure to provide essential and comprehensive overflow data while ensuring minimal impact on our natural environment.

“Climate change is leading to an increased frequency of high-intensity rainfall events and there is a risk that the number of unsatisfactory sewer overflows may progressively increase. We are working with local councils and Scottish Water to take a new approach to managing rainfall by using blue-green infrastructure to absorb rainfall, reduce flood risk and minimise sewer overflow spills.”

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