HOUSEHOLDS in Southern Water's region face a hefty increase in bills if the Solent is classed an estuary and not sea.
If the water inland of the Isle of Wight is classed as sea it demands relatively cheap standards of treatment for the sewage being poured into it. But if it is classed as estuary under the EC's new Urban Wastewaters Directive, it requires much higher standards, with the bill running into hundreds of millions. The cost will fall on Southern's 4 million customers.
John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, will decide on its classification soon. The Government's water quality watchdog, the National Rivers Authority, has told him that the Solent needs higher protection and should be classed as an estuary. But Southern Water has made clear to the Government the heavy costs and unpopular bill increases involved.
The Solent, fringed by resort towns and beaches, is the depository for the sewage of hundreds of thousands of people. Southern Water spends more than pounds 50m a year on outfalls which take the untreated crude waste further out to sea to comply with the EC's bathing waters directive. While this is an improvement on the short outfalls which piped sewage near to beaches, it is only primary treatment.
The new urban wastewaters directive, now being implemented, says that secondary treatment - involving settling-out of sludge and digestion by bacteria in sewage farms - is required for all sewage outfalls discharging into 'normal' waters.
The Government has to decide whether estuaries and coastal waters are normal waters. If it can show that they are 'areas of high natural dispersion', where tides and currents rapidly disperse wastes, then they can be classed as less sensitive, needing only the cheaper, primary treatment for sewage discharges.
The NRA's stance is supported by the Liberal-Democrat-run Isle of Wight County Council and the island's Tory MP, Barry Field. They believe higher standards are vital for the tourist industry.
'The effect on tourism and wildlife could be tremendous,' Morris Barton, the leader of the IoW county council, said.
Last year, Southern Water made after-tax profits of pounds 109m and say that two-thirds of the money is being invested in clean-up programmes. Its Hampshire director, Stuart Derwent, said that bills would rise by 10 per cent a year in the late 1990s if the the Solent was classed as estuary.