Water in UK’s first official bathing river to be designated poor-quality
Swimming season is approaching for the first river in the UK to be given bathing water status, but the quality of the water will initially be designated as poor.
A stretch of the River Wharfe in the West Yorkshire town of Ilkley was given the status after a campaign to clean up the river and reduce the scale of sewage discharges from storm overflows owned by Yorkshire Water.
As the Yorkshire town prepares to become the first UK river bathing water area in May, the water company said it was committed to delivering what was required to move the quality from poor to good.
“In the short term we have identified areas to help reduce the number of discharges from combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which includes reducing the amount of surface water infiltrating the sewer network from Ilkley Tarn and upgrading Rivadale CSO,” Yorkshire Water said.
“We are also assessing how we can pilot the deployment of a smart network in Ilkley. This will combine the existing monitoring with additional advanced techniques in the sewer network.”
The company said it wanted to use artificial intelligence to be more effective at predicting when blockages in the system occur and intervening when they do.
Across the UK other groups are preparing to follow in Ilkley’s footsteps as part of river cleanup campaigns. Granting bathing water status means rivers will be under the same rigorous public health testing that coastal waters are subject to. With just 14% of English rivers deemed to be in good ecological health, the movement to push for bathing water status is being seen as a way to raise the stakes for cleanup campaigns.
In Scotland, the Forth Rivers Trust has applied to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for bathing water status for part of the River Almond.
The 400-metre stretch of river in the Almondell and Calderwood country park in West Lothian is upstream of Livingston and is subject to sewage discharges upstream from water treatment plants, including the East Calder plant, said Alison Baker of the Rivers Trust.
“People have swum in the river for a long time. It is used by dedicated river swimmers and by people paddling. We feel people should be able to swim in the river and have been inspired by the success in Ilkley,” said Baker.
In Oxford campaigners are seeking bathing water status for a stretch of the Thames at Port Meadow.
Claire Robertson, from the End Sewage Pollution campaign, said that from April the Oxford Rivers Project and citizen scientists would start collecting water samples from 18 river locations across Oxfordshire each month before sending them to Thames Water labs.
The samples would be tested for sewage-linked bacteria, which can cause health problems, with the results contributing to the application for designated bathing water status at Port Meadow.
She said they had secured agreement from Thames Water to provide real-time alerts of sewage discharges from six storm overflows.
Richard Aylard, Thames Water’s sustainability director, said: “Discharges of untreated sewage are unacceptable to us, our customers and the environment, and we will work with the government, Ofwat, the Environment Agency and others to accelerate work to stop them being necessary.”
Figures on sewage releases into English rivers and coastal waters published last week revealed that untreated sewage was discharged via storm overflows more than 400,000 times over 3.1m hours in 2020.
Tim Harris, an associate at the Rivers Trust, which is supporting the Oxford campaign, said: “We know from the monitoring of sewer storm overflows that untreated sewage discharges are a significant source of pollution in our rivers, but there has been no routine monitoring of bacteria levels in rivers in the UK.
“This project is going to be crucial in filling that data gap and helping recreational river users to make a more informed decision about when and where it is safest to enter the water.”
Becky Malby of the Ilkley campaign said: “We are looking forward to Yorkshire Water, the Environment Agency and Ofwat working together to provide a sustainable solution for Ilkley and nationally.
“We know the only viable solution is to decombine the sewage system to a level where the runoff from rainwater goes into the river and all our sewage is properly treated. We also know everyone knows this is the solution. There now needs to be a plan to action it.”
Yorkshire Water said that aside from the stretch of the river in Ilkley which had been given bathing water status, its ambition was to get the whole 65-mile river declared as of good ecological status by 2027.
“We and other stakeholders in the region have formed a partnership with the aim of delivering good ecological status for the whole river by 2027 as set out in the water framework directive parameters,” said the company. “Focusing on good ecological status for the whole river will have a greater overall benefit for the environment and people on the wider Wharfe.”