DEFRA clarifies Pow’s bathing water claim

The environment department has clarified claims made by environment minister Rebecca Pow stating that all England’s bathing waters would be monitored all year round.

The Telegraph reported on Monday that Pow said bathing waters would receive year round monitoring, rather than simply monitoring during the three month bathing season, due to the popularity of wild swimming throughout the year. 

But DEFRA contacted ENDS to say that an ENDS Report story, summarising the Telegraph’s article, was incorrect because the monitoring Pow was referring to related to a water sector pledge on sewage overflows, made in January. 

Under the January commitment, the water industry will, at some point in the future, “make real-time data on sewage discharges available at bathing sites all year round, meaning surfers, swimmers and other water users can check the latest information – especially after heavy rainfall”. At present this would apply to coastal bathing waters and one river in Ilkley, West Yorkshire. 

However a press release, sent exclusively to the Telegraph and seen by ENDS states:  

"Those who live in or visit Ilkley in Yorkshire to swim in its beautiful river will now benefit from its new bathing water status which means that the same regular regime of monitoring of the water quality will operate as is carried out for bathing areas on the coast.

"And in a new move our designated bathing waters will be monitored year round as opposed to only in a window over the summer."

DEFRA told ENDS that designated bathing areas will only be monitored by the Environment Agency (EA) in the summer months, as is already required by law. 

For the rest of the year, wild swimmers will have to rely on the water companies’ storm overflow data.

As part of the water sector commitment, “Water companies will also accelerate work to install monitoring devices to create a complete picture of their activity by 2023” and “they will publish annual monitoring data on their websites about their use of storm overflows so that progress in reducing their use can be tracked.” Additionally, the EA will compile this data into an annual report.

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “Monitoring refers to the monitoring of the storm discharge into the main waters, which water companies will be doing all year round, that’s the new move. 

“The task force information will be made available all the time, so bathers can always look at the water quality and make a decision as to what they want to do.”

EA testing involves sampling water from the designated bathing area and testing it for bacteria. The area is then assigned a classification of excellent, good, sufficient or poor by the EA - a clear instruction for the prospective bather. 

Wild swimmers will instead need to remain vigilant in checking the task force data of sewage releases outside the EA testing period, between May and September. 

In 2018, Sport England’s Active Lives survey found that 7.5 million people swim in open water and outdoor pools, and uptake has continued to increase. The Outdoor Swimming Society has seen website traffic increase by 46% (785,000 visitors) since the first lockdown, and their membership has increased by 36%. Similarly, open-water lakes have reported up to a 1,000-fold increase in visitor numbers.

Campaigners have fought for better water standards in UK rivers across the UK, after regular stories of water companies pumping raw sewage into rivers as overflow, as well as pollution caused by road runoff and plastics. 

In September 2020, DEFRA published data showing that none of England’s rivers met the legal water quality standard thresholds.

Christine Colvin, director of partnerships and communications at the Rivers Trust, said: “The UK is lagging far behind the rest of Europe in having rivers fit to swim in. France has over 400 designated bathing sites, with all the consequent benefits for tourism, wellness and river wildlife.  

“Our report released today shows that 75% of Britons are worried about becoming sick when they use rivers for recreation and an overwhelming 90% support having designated bathing waters inland. We are tired of seeing our rivers used as open sewers, we want to see them playing a central role in the Green Recovery. Government needs to give more practical and urgent support for rivers’ protection and enforce the polluter pays principle.”

This story's headline has been amended to state that DEFRA has 'clarified' statements made by Pow, rather than 'distanced itself' from the claims, as the previous headline suggested.


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