Bathing status calls for stretch of river Avon

Campaigners are calling for a stretch of the river Avon near Bath to be given official bathing status in a bid to force regulators to regularly test the quality of the water and hold polluters to account.

There is currently only one stretch of river in the UK designated with bathing status in England - part of the river Wharfe in Ilkley, West Yorkshire.

With the designation comes the requirement for the site’s water to be tested at regular intervals across the year to determine levels of faecal pollution, rather than just over a period in the summer months.

Lead campaigner Jonny Palmer, who also owns the river island at Warleigh Weir on the river Avon, told Sky News: “Getting designated bathing water status is really important because it means the Environment Agency can hold polluters to account and reduce the pollution in our water.

“Since COVID, wild swimming has gone through the roof because sports centres have been closed and people are seeing the physical and mental health benefits from it”. 

However, earlier this year the Environment Agency (EA) was accused by Professor Rebecca Malby, co-founder of the Ilkley Clean River Group, of not properly monitoring the bathing waters of the newly designated Ilkley site because it was only testing water upstream of a sewage works - when many bathers swim downstream of the plant. 

Speaking in April at a session of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, Malby pointed out that locals swim downstream of the sewage works, while tourists tend to use upstream. 

DEFRA and the EA declined to comment on the accusations at the time, but sent ENDS information stating that bathing waters do not have a formally defined area. Instead, they said, bathing waters have a sample point at a fixed location which is representative of the area most people bathe in, as required by bathing water regulations. Malby nonetheless contested this. 

If Palmer is successful in his campaign for bathing status at Warleigh Weir, it is not the case that the EA itself would be responsible for monitoring the water quality all year around. 

In March DEFRA put out a release which claimed that the new Ilkley bathing site would “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”. 

However the department later clarified that the EA will only monitor the water quality in the summer months, as was already required by law. Outside of those months, wild swimmers will have to rely on the water companies’ storm overflow data.

Almost all of the UK’s 640 bathing waters are on the coast, with none inland other than a number of lakes and the new site in Ilkley, amounting to 16 sites. In contrast, according to 2020 data 1,273 inland sites are designated in France and 1,941 in Germany, where more than 90% are rated as ‘excellent’.

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