RAW sewage is occasionally released into Lough Erne from 22 combined sewer overflows (CSOs). 

The Impartial Reporter can reveal that these sewer overflows are located close to some of Fermanagh’s key tourism hot spots such as Castle Archdale, Belleek Pottery and Enniskillen Castle; beside children’s play parks such as the Round O and Loughview Drive and in town centres.

Fermanagh is famed for its untouched natural beauty and its crystal clear waters but, in reality, fishermen are reportedly “catching tampons” in Derrychara and raw sewage was recently leaked from a CSO located at Loughview Drive.

It is widely recognised that combined sewer overflow discharges can contain pollutants, including bacteria and chemicals which can seriously compromise the quality of our water. Yet they are considered “standard water industry practice” and are used by Northern Ireland Water to alleviate out of sewer flooding during periods of wet weather. CSOs are also activated if an in-sewer blockage occurs, for example, if inappropriate items such as fats, oils and grease enter the sewage network.

Fermanagh’s drinking water comes directly from Lough Erne.

The Impartial Reporter asked NI Water to identify the coordinates of all CSOs located directly on the shores of Lough Erne and the River Erne. NI Water provided the coordinates and stated: “There are 22 Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) outfalls to Upper and Lower Lough Erne and the River Erne.”

Two months ago, this newspaper carried an article: ‘Sewage blight in our lovely Lough Erne’, which related to raw sewage coming from a CSO located at Loughview Drive, Enniskillen. The spillage had been caused by a temporary blockage in the sewer network close to Kilmacormick Wastewater Pumping Station and residents were disgusted to see human faeces, toilet paper and sanitary towels floating in the water. The former Environment Minister Mark H. Durkan branded the incident “unacceptable” and NI Water called for residents to stop flushing inappropriate items like nappies, baby wipes and sanitary items down the toilet.

Combined Sewer Overflows are considered “standard water industry practice” and are permitted under UK and European law, but many people using Lough Erne are not aware of their existence. 

“This is very shocking,” said Trevor Foster of Erne Paddlers, when he learned that a CSO is located close to the group’s base at Castle Island. “We are operating from the Castle Island Canoe Centre and paddle around the town. Paddling leaves us in contact with the water and it is unthinkable about what could happen.”

The Impartial Reporter spoke to two English fishermen who were visiting Fermanagh to compete in the Mini Mahon’s Fishing Festival. They were fishing close to two CSOs in Enniskillen; at the jetty behind Stuart’s carpark on the Sligo Road and along the new walkway close to Enniskillen Castle.
“I’ve been coming here since 1998 and I have never been made aware of it before. I tend not to think about it. I’m not shocked but this news certainly puts a different perspective on things,” said one of the men. 

The second added: “I always assumed that Lough Erne was clean. Is it raw sewage? I was here 20 years ago and I was catching 30-40 kilos of roach. Now the fishing isn’t nearly as good on Lough Erne. This week I’m catching three kilos. It’s probably been going on for years but I’d say there are other reasons for the poor fishing. It’s not good for Fermanagh’s clean image.”

Lisnaskea man Barry Flanagan has recently established a new water taxi business on Lough Erne. He stated: “As tourism is becoming increasingly important to the local economy I believe we should be protecting the Lough from any threat of pollution, including raw sewage, agricultural pollutants and fracking. The lakelands are a huge asset in terms of bringing visitors into the county so to damage them would be detrimental to the tourism industry, to wildlife and to our own health.”

Chair of the Erne Rivers Trust, Albert Keys said: “These 22 CSOs do not include the flows from the tributaries sewage plants like Arney, Lisnaskea, Irvinestown or the thousands of local private household sewage plants all over Fermanagh.” He is concerned that “long term limited investment in the system” could lead to problems in the future. According to Mr. Keys, the Erne Rivers Trust has been made aware of rubbish flowing down the Kesh River and fuel present in local rivers. He concluded: “We have fishermen catching tampons in Derrychara and reports over many years of raw sewage floating around Cornagrade. It is time we started to tidy our own house and take responsibility.”

NI Water said that CSOs are consented under the Water Order (Northern Ireland) 1999 and permitted under the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive.

The Impartial Reporter asked the Public Health Agency for its stance on the use of CSOs in Northern Ireland. A spokeswoman replied: “This is outside our remit. We would only be involved if there was an outbreak of human disease with sewage.”

The Department for Regional Development’s Water Strategy states: “CSO discharges can contain a wide variety of pollutants, including bacteria and chemicals which can seriously compromise the quality of receiving waters.” 
The strategy adds: “Northern Ireland’s urban drainage systems are combined, carrying both stormwater and sewage in one pipe. This means that rainwater is often pumped and treated like sewage unnecessarily. Excessive rainfall can overload sewerage systems and result in out of sewer flooding and pollution. Combined Sewer Overflows are a necessary part of the system to reduce the risk of overloading of sewers.”

Asked if NI Water accepts the concerns outlined above, a spokeswoman said: “NI Water acknowledges the concern expressed by fishermen and tourism providers regarding CSOs around Lough Erne.”

She continued: “CSOs are an integral part of sewer network design both in the United Kingdom and overseas and act as essential relief valves in sewer networks preventing hydraulic overloading of the network during extreme weather events i.e. when the capacity of a sewer exceeds the 1 in 30 year UK Water Industry agreed storm event criterion. CSOs can also be activated by the discharge of inappropriate material in sewers including fats, oils and grease which cause in-sewer blockages.

“The CSOs significantly reduce the risk of the flooding of household properties and business premises which would present a danger to health.
“It is important to note that in the Fermanagh (and Omagh) Area there are no properties affected by internal sewer flooding events arising from NI Water’s assets.”

Some CSOs have alarms which notify NI Water if a sewage leak has occurred. NI Water also relies on reports from NIEA and the public. 
“NI Water’s Networks Team investigates sewer flooding causes and identifies operational solutions e.g. removal of inappropriate materials; optimising sewer network maintenance desilt regimes or the need for capital solutions to be developed by NI Water in order to address hydraulic capacity issues,” the spokeswoman continued.

A £13.5 million Wastewater Water Treatment Works was opened in Enniskillen in 2009. Since then, NI Water has spent £31.8 million on major water programmes and improvements in Fermanagh and Omagh. “Fermanagh and Omagh benefits from 9.85 per cent of all NI Water’s capital spend. This compares favourably with the District’s 6.2 per cent share of Northern Ireland’s population,” the spokeswoman added.

During the period 2015 to 2021, NI Water has set aside £5.3 million for a programme of storm separation which is currently identifying pilot storm water separation schemes throughout the province. Over £33 million will be spent on sewer maintenance but, as yet, no Fermanagh locations have been identified for investment. 

Future works in the local area will include: £21 million on the North Western River Basin, which includes County Fermanagh and catchment investigations in Monea and Belleek as part of an ongoing Drainage Area Study programme. The spokeswoman concluded: “NI Water liaises with NIEA regarding the identification and prioritisation of its infrastructure requiring investment across Northern Ireland, subject to available funding.”