“Take me to the river, drop me in the Water”

It started with a request I made to Scottish Water in the middle of last year, says Gordon Munro

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A conversation with a sailor whose boat was moored in Granton harbour informed me, after I had regaled him with my tale of wild swimming there, that there were sewage outfalls in Wardie Bay.

The other conversation was based on insights from an activist from Friends of Water of Leith basin regarding raw sewage spilling into the Water of Leith at Coalhill. Which turned out to be wrongly connected piping from a development there, which Scottish Water sorted.

I then made a request to Scottish Water asking if they could supply details of sewage spillages into Wardie Bay and the Leith part of the Water of Leith.

The answer left me gobsmacked; it turns out there are two in Wardie Bay and a whopping twenty six in the Water of Leith, between Brandon Terrace and the Malmaison. All are operational and none are monitored.

‘Estimates’ are used to ‘predict’ likely flow based on weather patterns with sudden downpours being the main catalyst for these outlets to discharge into Wardie Bay and the Water of Leith.

In the 21st century and with all the gained knowledge in engineering and treatment of waste materials, we are still abusing our water courses like it’s the 19th Century. I am not alone in finding this practice disturbing and disrespectful to our environment.

Former Undertones front man and keen fly fisherman, Feargal Sharkey, has been campaigning to clean up rivers down south but the points he makes are relevant here as well. His main query is around the lack of investment: The response usually being, “we will introduce legislation.”

Feargal’s reply which applies to Scotland too is that what legislation is there is adequate; it’s application, enforcement and investment that are required.

Here in Scotland it is the Government agency SEPA that should monitor the outfalls but in the case of the Water of Leith and Wardie Bay it is simply not done.

Water in Scotland is publicly owned so in theory its investment programme should be subject to some form of public discussion and accountability by our MSPs. I doubt if the issue of sewage outfalls into our water courses has been part of any discussion about investment plans but it should be.

The days of the Mills, the print works, the factories and the breweries spewing their waste into the Water of Leith are long gone and this has led to a gradual improvement in the Water, which in turn has seen wildlife reappear.

Herons are regularly spotted along its course a sign that fish have returned as too is the return of otters at two different parts of the river.

The Water of Leith flood prevention scheme initiated by your Council has seen real improvements to prevent flooding upstream but also to improve access to the water.

The scheme still has to tackle the mouth of the river where all water and detritus flows with the siltation built up since the enclosure of the docks creating a further problem that needs to be confronted along with the discharge of raw sewage – How much? How often? – into the river.

Any future investment made for flood prevention should be done in conjunction with planned investment in how sewage waste is tackled and treated.

This includes not just the outfalls into the Water of Leith and the Firth of Forth but also the outdated and outmoded blight that is Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works, the largest such plant in Scotland.

The critical point here is that there is a real need to update how we treat and tackle waste especially as the city continues to grow. The way that we use water has changed and so should the way that we treat the spaces that provide it.

A newfound respect for the environment along with incremental improvements has seen the return of leisure swimming in the Forth. Walking along the Water of Leith was a positive boon during lockdown, here was an activity that all could afford.

Citadel Youth Centre in a really innovative piece of work, has seen local youths canoeing and paddle boarding in the basin, bringing real life to the water not seen since the days my Dad remembered boats being moored there.

Imagine if this became a permanent and productive use for the water here providing those closest to it with an experience that gives the river a newfound respect.

Further artistic contributions to complement Anthony Gormley’s 6 Times which can be found along the course of, or adjacent to, the Water of Leith.

Tackling the problems created by our waste is not beyond the resources and knowledge available to us, but what as ever, will make it happen is in the hands of political will and direction.

An unpublished Robert Louis Stevens fragment, displayed on the Water of Leith pathway resounds: ‘It is not possible to exaggerate the hold that is taken on the mind of men by a familiar river’.

Let us embrace and update that sentiment to include all who enjoy the Water of Leith and Wardie Bay.

Let us make sure our water courses are fit for all. ■

Info: citadelyouthcentre.org.uk, waterofleith.org.uk

Illustration by volunteer Rob Hainsworth who is often spotted sketching away

Walking along the Water of Leith was a boon during lockdown, here was an activity that all could afford

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