Wednesday, September 28

How to turn England’s rivers from filthy sewers into shining streams | Rachel Salvid

I wouldn’t go swimming in England’s rivers, in the same way that I wouldn’t flush my head down a public toilet. It’s not just me who feels this way. Even Sir James Bevan, the chief executive of the Environment Agency – the regulator responsible for protecting and improving water in England – have said he would be “cautious” about it, first seeking out assurances by checking the websites of the EA and the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage before going for a paddle.

Bevan’s agency does provide some assurances – as long as you only wish to swim in one of the country’s 417 or so designated bathing water sites, most of which are at the coast. In fact, there are only around a dozen inland bathing lakes in the whole country; and, for now, just one river – in Ilkley, West Yorkshire – which was rated “poor” in the agency’s last assessment of bathing water, so you might want to avoid it anyway. Better to hop across the Channel instead, where France can offer around 1,300 glorious lakes and rivers designated for safe swimming among its 3,300 bathing sites.

The main reason Defra, which sponsors the EA, is loth to greenlight river swimming is that sewage, farm, urban and industrial pollution is so widespread that all of England’s rivers failed to meet the legal standard for overall health the last time they were assessed. It’s not the EA’s fault though, according to the agency. It has pleaded poverty over the abysmal state of our watercourses, stating that “you get the environment you pay for” and calling for more government funding to enable it to nobble polluters and do its job properly.

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So where does that leave the wild swimmers, the boaters, the anglers and pretty much anyone who would prefer to stroll alongside a shining stream than an open sewer? Sensing abandonment by the agency – compounded by its recent moves to stop attending “low-impact” pollution incidents and the low morale of staff who say they are no longer able to deter polluters – communities have begun to take matters into their own hands. It appears, at first glance, as though it is working.

It began last year when the people of the Ilkley Clean River Group in West Yorkshire succeeded in getting a stretch of the River Wharfe, already popular with swimmers, designated as an official bathing water site. Situated downstream of a sewage treatment works, the group knew the water would not be safe and concluded that a bathing designation was the only way to oblige the Environment Agency to install a water quality monitor and acknowledge the level of pollution there. After a bizarre scrap to get the agency to locate the monitor downstream of the sewage works rather than in the cleaner water upstream, that stretch of the Wharfe officially became the first river bathing water in England, albeit one with poor water quality.

A year on and we now have a grand total of two river bathing sites: thanks to the efforts of the Thames21 charity, a stretch of the River Thames in Oxford will also be granted bathing water status next month.

France we are not, but could these two sites signal the first green shoots of a wider society-led movement to clean up our rivers?

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The Rivers Trust and Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) campaign groups hope so. Together they’ve compiled a map showing 273 popular river recreation spots, including some where there is already a community interest in setting up a bathing water designation, such as Warleigh Weir on the River Avon and Sheep’s Green on the River Cam. SAS has also launched a request calling for Defra to create 200 new bathing sites by 2030.

Bagging a bathing water site is relatively straightforward, according to Thames21. For anyone embarking on the process, it recommends agreeing river users, picking a popular spot with access and facilities, researching pollution risks, logging the number of people using the river during the May-September bathing season, getting the landowner’s permission, raising public awareness and then making a formal application to Defra. It sounds simple, but Prof Becky Malby from the Ilkley Clean River Group points out that there is no transparency over Defra’s decision-making and that it takes around two years to complete the whole process – time which, in their case, would have been better spent fixing sewage spills from the nearby water firm’s pipes.

So we’re in (at best) muddy waters. Clearly, the growing bathing water movement is positive and the associated public awareness is critical if things are to improve, but it doesn’t get anywhere near addressing the problem of chronic and widespread river pollution. A couple of Environment Agency tests for two types of bacteria taken at one site during the bathing season doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the number of pollutants flowing through our beauty spots, or the consequent risks to people and wildlife.

What we need are wholesale improvements to entire catchments made by tougher regulation of the biggest polluters: the water industry and agriculture. A few bathing designations on a river in a catchment that is inundated with sewage pollution or choked by farm fertilizers will not be enough to make swimming safe.

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