The community of Gairloch community took to the beaches last week to demonstrate against Scottish Water’s plans to downgrade the current water treatment works to a system that will produce a dirtier discharge into the pristine waters of Loch Gairloch.
Residents turned out en masse on Friday for a beach barbecue and a swim in the loch to show the Scottish Environment Protection Agency how much the community values its clean water beaches.
Fran Cree of Gairloch Community Council said: “Gairloch has two beaches that are Designated Bathing Waters – the community worked hard to have these beaches ‘designated’ in order to protect them. The beaches and seawaters are a very valuable asset to the local community. People walk, run, walk their dogs, fish, swim, sail, kayak and snorkel on the beaches and in the sea all year round. Our waters are also a vital asset in attracting visitors all year round. A recent petition against the Scottish Water changes was signed by visitors from all over the world who appreciate Gairloch’s pristine beauty and find it hard to believe SEPA would allow this retrograde change to take place.”
Dr Karen Buchanan, curator of Gairloch Heritage Museum, said : “SEPA has not undertaken an assessment of the impact on the local economy of a deterioration in water quality. Our community is understandably concerned about the impact on tourism in particular. We have few other industries here and many residents depend on income from tourism. This area deserves to have absolutely the best treatment possible to protect our natural assets. The further downgrading of treatment in the winter months is nonsensical. The welcome fact is that tourism is becoming less seasonal across the Highlands. At Gairloch Heritage Museum last year visitor numbers in April 2017 were up by more than 100% on the previous April. Visitors and local residents alike use our waters all year round. We strongly object to SEPA’s decision that the risk to water users outside the summer season is ‘acceptable’ due to the low level of activity. “
The community has been fighting Scottish Water’s planned downgrading of Gairloch’s waste water treatment since 2014 but last week SEPA gave Scottish Water the go ahead to make the changes. The beach demonstration was organised to highlight the use of the loch all year round and to encourage the community to take action to overturn the decision. Local groups attending the demonstration included the Gairloch Dippers, Loch Ewe Wild Swimmers and the Gairloch Coastal Rowing Club.
At present the Gairloch water treatment works uses a membrane bio-reactor system that produces effluent of such high-quality that it presents no hazard to health even at the point of discharge. Scottish Water’s proposal is to replace the system with three giant septic tanks, discharging effluent for seven months of the year, and applying UV sterilization for five months in the summer. Whilst the proposals just meet SEPA’s minimum discharge quality standards, the Gairloch community feels this substantial downgrading of the current system is completely unacceptable. The community has written to ministers to ask them to call in and overturn SEPA’s decision. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has confirmed that an application to ministers to review the decision had been received. The Gairloch community hopes that Scottish Ministers will look to the wider public interest and decide in favour of protecting our environment by ensuring the existing high-quality treatment is maintained all year round.
Local MP Ian Blackford believes that “common sense will prevail” and has met with officials from Environment Secretary Rosanna Cunningham’s office.
He added: “I fully support the Gairloch community in their belief that reducing treatment would be a step backwards and will continue to work with them and the Scottish Government in achieving the best outcome.”
Highlands and Islands MSP Rhoda Grant said: “I have been inundated with messages from constituents in Gairloch, incensed and anxious about the decision by SEPA to approve a licence for a new ultra-violet treatment system which is only operational for the peak tourist and bathing season, leaving the rest of the year with an inferior, down-graded system allowing bacteria and sewage into the sea.”