Sewage Litter On The Irwell

Tempers have been running high on our facebook page over the last couple of days about the increasing amount of sewage litter being washed up on the river banks.

Irwell Sewage Litter

This has been an ongoing problem on the Irwell now for many years – the legacy of a sewage system designed by the Victorians and ignored by successive generations until efforts were first made to clean up the river system in the mid 1970s.

Since then, there has been a long slow steady series of improvements. Started off by North West Water and the National Rivers Authority, now continued by United Utilities and the Environment Agency.

As water quality has improved, invertebrates and fish have returned to the river, followed by anglers and other naturalists. Our expectations are high, as we compare our River Irwell to other rivers in the North West such as the Dee,Dane, the Ribble and the Lune.

In the 1950s the Irwell was described in Parliament as the dirtiest river in Europe – so we have a rock bottom base on which to build the success story that the Irwell is becoming.

Huge improvements in the way our waste water and sewage is processed, and the virtual elimination of industrial discharges have transformed the Irwell.


The legacy of this old Victorian system is the large number of Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs) which act as a safety valve for the system of old pipes, allowing them to overflow into the river during periods of peak capacity through the sewage system.

United Utilities (under the European Waste Water Treatment Directive) are required by law to screen all outflows into a river.

Back in the day – screening was non existent on the Irwell – but has slowly been adopted by UU on their water treatment works, and on the pipes which they adjudge to be the most frequent dischargers.

In 2010 under a freedom of information act request we found out from the EA that there were 108 CSOs on the Irwell between Rawtenstall and Manchester City Centre. Of these 108 CSOs only a 20 had any sort of screening, leaving 88 of them to pollute our river and decorate our river banks with sanitary products and condoms each time there is a significant rainfall event. No wonder the riverbanks are in such a disgusting state.

Over the last couple of months, we have endured extended periods of heavy rain, resulting in the river levels being high, and the local sewage system running at peak and above peak capacity.

Now as water levels are dropping, anglers are finding that once again the river banks, and river side trees are covered in unsightly sewage litter. Sewage litter that should be filtered out by the 6mm mesh mechanical screens of UU.

Look at the state of this tree, all the “leaves” on the lower branches are bits of wet wipes and tampons from a sewage overflow.

Irwell Sewage Tree

We know that there are not enough screens in place in the system – and that UU are adding more.

But are the existing screens being cleaned often enough, or being monitored for efficiency ?

I’ve asked the EA if they monitor this – the answer is no.

Once a screen is full it gets bypassed.

I wonder how many CSO screens (which only have an efficiency rate of 60% !) have been bypassed recently.

Here is a photo of an outfall where the screen isnt working properly (near Cemetry Rd Farnworth)

Shit pipe

If you see any grills that are coated like this or any part of the river bank that has significant amounts of sewage litter, please take a photo if possible and report it to us via

In July 2013 we asked members to report the worst grot spots that they knew of on the Irwell – 6 of these spots have been taken up on our behalf by the EA with United Utilities and we hope that they are going to be included in the next capital projects plan by UU.

People do take notice of us. So if you want a cleaner river, please get out on the river over the next 7 days and take photos of any evidence you might find and send them in


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