An Outfall Safari at Oddfellows

Lucy Johnson
October 19, 2023

One of our volunteers, Lucy Johnson, recently took part in the training for our Outfall Safaris. Outfall Safaris are walks along the river by volunteers looking for pipes, or outfalls, from which water is spilling from in dry weather. Most of these spills are the result of misconnections where homes and businesses have been connected to underground waterways rather than the sewer. Throughout October and November, Lucy and the other volunteers from the Aire Rivers Trust will be recording these, and the impact of licensed sewer overflows, to urge Yorkshire Water and others to take action to improve them.  

In the article below Lucy reflects on her experience and hopes for the project.

Last Saturday I traipsed out of the house with a selection of pens, a notebook, delicious sandwiches and footwear suitable for any condition from completely dry to slight rainfall in a paved area. On the train from Leeds, I struck up a conversation with another compatriot from my part of West Yorkshire, also venturing out west of Leeds to enjoy a walk from Crossflatts to Ilkley for the first time since COVID. Having properly set the world to rights before the day had really begun, I speed-walked my way through Skipton to my destination. Unfortunately, my outing was not to explore the countryside at Skipton (nor my favourite cafés) but to attend training, not something I generally feel well disposed to on a glorious Saturday.

How to spot sewage

The training was the final of four recently organised across the Aire Valley by Sam Riley-Gunn of the Aire Rivers Trust, to empower citizens to take action on polluting outfalls in their local rivers and becks, and was successfully crowd-funded. Within the umbrella of the Rivers Trust, many of its member organisations across Britain and Ireland have adopted the model originated by the Zoological Society of London to record and respond to polluting overflows.

In Oddfellows most people (presumably having had more reliable modes of transport than two early morning Northern trains) were settled and ready to go, provided with a feedback card, a brightly-coloured white-board marker, and a tricky-to-prise open oversized plastic lanyard containing key reference information, and a hot drink. We cracked straight on. Over the course of the day, we learned about everything from the history of sewers to the inside story of how to get Yorkshire Water to cough up a £1,600,750 fine, to the finer details of Whatsapp features and a tailor-made form including photographs, descriptions and other monitoring details.

Two fish leap in a graphic that divides text

A Legendary Pollution Hunter

Rob Hellawell is a veteran of the delicate dance of reporting water pollution to the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water, primarily in the area around Bradford. Some reports can take years to come to fruition. Rob was instrumental in helping the Environment Agency prosecute Yorkshire Water in Bradford years after the pollution took place, thanks to his careful documentation. He recommends arming yourself with the key phrase, “I’d like to report an incident of pollution to the water course,” in order to get connected to the right phone operative. Provide photographs, report immediately if you witnessed it first-hand, document the location using what3words (be prepared to spell the words out to avoid confusion), and wangle a no longer provided standard reference number out of them for follow-up, which of course as a newly-minted intrepid pollution hunter you will do.

Safely as you go

There were some safety considerations to bear in mind. Be careful to cover open cuts on your hands, use the antibacterial gel provided after contact with the river, don’t wade above ankle depth and be aware that flash-flooding can occur. The energetic pollution hunter also has to know when to stalk their quarry; breakfast and evening times are best, when people are likely to be using toilets, sinks and washing machines. Industrial areas are also likely to be busy at similar times of the day, allowing people on Outfall Safaris to spot and monitor where misconnections mean that untreated water is going straight into the river. While the Aire Rivers Trust are dab hands at cleaning up litter, any major fly-tipping should be reported directly to the relevant council authority (North Yorkshire, Lancashire, Bradford or Leeds, according to the stretch of river where the fly-tipping is found).

Putting it all into action

Brains thoroughly expanded, and knowledge of gooey and unpleasant substances, colours and aromas forever increased, we headed out in a crocodile chain to a small beck close by, a stretch of water which changed in appearance over the short time that we surveyed it. Some more recent pipes sat alongside older infrastructure, including a Heath Robinson contraption from the roadside high above. We had a go at grading the different outfalls once we had got our eye on them, firstly at spotting them, then secondly at judging if they met the 20cm minimum criteria. Wrapping the day up with a group photo on a bridge, we returned to civilisation, ready to use new knowledge on the stretches of river meticulously mapped out by Sam. And no, my smart sneakers were not adequate for the river path, but I managed to avoid falling in and becoming part of the river detritus myself.

Two fish leap in a graphic that divides text

Outfalls at Oddfellows (a poem)

Bright lights, PowerPoint on
Walking boots, bright-coloured coats.
Mugs of coffee, insulated water bottles.
Rob hanging on every word, poised to interject.
Kettle boiled, cups full.
Graphs, charts, images, the works.

The audience are polite, focused.
Relevant questions, print-outs to hand.
We spill out
Onto the pavement
Into the sunshine.
Beck time!

One pipe, two pipes, four
Blue paint, ‘Heath Robinson’
Fast-flowing water.
Peculiar arrangement
Alleviating the surface water.
Many points of interest on a short stretch.

Now time for me to be
Eastward bound.
A kind fellow musafir points
The way to the Wilderness
A little grotto
A haven from the crowds.
A place to linger, but there’s a train to catch

Now to meddle with Google docs
Entice friends to explore
Bring along someone new
One pipe at a time
Follow in Rob’s footsteps
Create a flow.

(Musafir is Arabic for traveller, from the same root as Safari.)
Two fish leap in a graphic that divides text

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The Aire Rivers Trust is a company limited by guarantee registered in England and Wales No: 07464227 and a Registered Charity No: 1145609
Registered Office at: 38 Morton Lane, East Morton, Keighley BD20 5RS
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