How a river bathing water site has forced regulators to act on sewage pollution

“A major step forward,” is how the founder of a campaign to clean up a river polluted by sewage has described a major breakthrough, with signs that the water industry is shifting its stance on the issue.

Bathers on the river Wharfe in Ilkley. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Getty Images Bathers on the river Wharfe in Ilkley. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Getty Images

A stretch of the river Wharfe in West Yorkshire became the first recognised bathing site in England in December, following pressure from local campaigners the Ilkley Clean River Group (ICRG). The designation means that the Environment Agency will conduct regular water safety testing, and communicate water safety with the public. It is also compelled to take action against river polluters.

But in May, the Environment Agency was accused of not monitoring the bathing waters properly, since it was only testing water upstream of a sewage works, even though many bathers swim downstream of the plant.

Professor Rebecca Malby, co-founder of the ICRG, said the agency was selecting which area to test based on how clean it was already, while the agency claimed it would be too expensive to test downstream as well. 

DEFRA meanwhile said that the regulation does not assign a formally defined area, but rather requires monitoring at a point that is representative of the area most people bathe.

Regulator Ofwat became involved in the issue after inviting Malby to speak at a virtual seminar in front of the board. “The chair said it was shocking that we've had to instigate this as the public, rather than the agencies,” Malby said. 

On Friday, Ofwat interim chief executive David Black wrote to all water companies to stress the need for them to clean up their action in relation on sewage overflows, and that it would enforce against them if they failed to comply with duties under the Water Industry Act 1991, Urban Waste Water Treatment (England and Wales) Regulations 1994. 

“If you have not already done so, I expect you and your board to be actively considering whether you have a full and accurate picture of your storm overflow assets and performance, the environmental impact of their use and a clear and timely strategy for addressing any shortcomings in that performance,” Black wrote. 

Also on Friday, Ofwat convened a meeting with the ICRG, the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water. Yorkshire Water has agreed to investigate tertiary treatment of the sewage, and to engage more closely with the community on finding solutions to raw sewage disposal. 

“The meeting felt like a real unblocker - the EA seemed to be waiting for DEFRA to tell them what designating a river really means, because nobody really knows, it's the first time we’ve had one. Ofwat's view was to do it in the spirit in which it was intended, which is to clean up the river. Ofwat was absolutely brilliant - we were getting nowhere, so this is a major step forward,” Malby said. 

Similar campaigns to free rivers of sewage pollution are springing up around the country. Malby reports receiving “almost daily” emails from new groups aiming to copy the ICRG’s approach. “We were in a seminar a couple of months ago, there were 140 people on it,” she said. 

In Bristol, a group of wild swimmers and local residents have launched a campaign for designated bathing water status for a stretch of the River Avon that flows through Eastwood Farm Nature Reserve and Conham River Park, about four miles from the city centre. 

A growing realisation of the impact of sewage pollution and the lack of data available to the public on this inspired the campaign. Specialists in freshwater quality monitoring and environmental policy have joined the group since it launched in May. 

The group is already undertaking a count of the number of people using the site for bathing, which is needed as part of the application for bathing water status. It is also designing a water quality testing programme to take place over summer, and a public consultation. 

Johnny Palmer, a local businessman who is seeking bathing water status for Warleigh Weir in the Cotswolds Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty near Bath, has collected data on usage of the site, and is talking to Wessex Water, who have publicly supported the campaign, about improvements to water quality. 

However, Bath and North East Somerset (BANES) Council have not cooperated with the campaign, with promises to discuss the issue at council meetings not met, he said. “Bureaucrats are not incentivised to make change,” he said. BANES Council did not respond to a request for comment. 

In the capital, London Waterkeeper is campaigning for Thames Water to provide real-time information on sewage overflows. It met with Thames Water’s director of sustainability and head of data last week, who said they were trialling the idea at two locations, though added that publicising it in real time was difficult. 

“We’ve asked them to put it in writing so we can talk to lawyers about the next step - whether the commitment they’ve made is enough, or if it’s in breach of the environmental information regulations. We’re waiting to hear back from them,” said Theo Thomas, founder of London Waterkeeper.

In Oxford, the city council backed a motion for a stretch of the Thames to be designated as bathing water. Its work is at early stages, but last week it collected several samples of river water at Port Meadow, a popular swimming spot just outside the city, working with the Rivers Trust and several representatives of Thames Water, according to the council’s cabinet member for culture, leisure and tourism Mary Clarkson.

Pressure on the government and water companies to take stronger action on sewage pollution is growing, with the latest being the launch of a private members bill by crossbench Peer the Duke of Wellington to place a duty on water companies to ensure that untreated sewage is not discharged into freshwater.

A similar private members bill by Conservative MP Philip Dunne ran out of time in the last parliamentary session. The government has tabled amendments to the Environment Bill on storm overflows, which requires water firms to report annually on their CSO performance and to lay a plan to reduce them before parliament by September 2022. 

But a plan to reduce discharges over time was “simply not enough,” said Wellington. “We must seek to eliminate them,” he added. 

The Environment Agency had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication. 


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