Working with aerial survey specialists at APEM, Anglian Water has been using high-tech 'spotter' planes along the Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk and Lincolnshire coastline this season to spot sources of pollution that can harm rivers, estuaries and the sea.
The light aircraft has taken hundreds of highly detailed photographs – both during the day and at night using thermal infrared – to pinpoint the source of any pollution problems, and the routes they take to get to the sea.
Tougher European legislation means beaches need to meet stricter criteria, or face having to put up signs warning people against going in the sea.
All bar one of the bathing waters in Anglian Water's region meet the new tighter standards. Already 91per cent are classed as good or excellent, but this aerial work will ensure they continue to do so and move closer to the goal of 100 per cent excellent.
Dr Lucinda Gilfoyle, who leads Anglian Water's coastal strategy, explained: "We've spent more than £300 million fixing issues that were previously affecting bathing water quality, dealing with some significant problems. What remains are smaller and harder to pinpoint sources of pollution – things that it's easy to overlook, or simply not see, if you're on the ground.
"Although each pollution source may seem negligible, when combined they can have a devastating impact on water quality. A lot of these potential contamination sources will have nothing to do with Anglian Water, but we see it as our responsibility to collaborate with coastal communities to help them address anything that poses a risk to water quality, and the wider economy that might depend on good, clean seas."
Potential sources of pollution the team expect to document include slurry from farms, animal waste from fields, sediment from river dredging, fouling from roosting sea birds, trade waste and poorly maintained private cess pits.
It takes a trained eye to spot pollution from the air, which is why Anglian Water brought in APEM to carry out the aerial surveys on its behalf.
Dr Stuart Clough, director of APEM, said: "Anglian Water is taking a ground-breaking approach to identifying hard-to-find sources of pollution and the benefits will be seen up and down the East of England coast. Our high resolution digital aerial surveys are ideal for jobs like this – fast, cost effective, safe and with a minimum of disturbance to people and wildlife.
"Unlike teams on the ground, our survey aircraft cover hundreds of square miles in a day, while the on-board cameras take thousands of ultra-high resolution images. Our expert image analysts will then pick out the tell-tale signs of pollution and pinpoint the location to allow Anglian Water to work with the necessary third parties to deal with the problem in the best way."