Yorkshire swimming spot to get bathing water status in UK first

Campaigners in Ilkley hope River Wharfe designation will ‘trigger a clean-up’ of local sewage system

A stretch of river in Yorkshire will become the first in the UK to be given bathing water status in a major success for campaigners trying to stop releases of untreated sewage into inland waters.

Part of the River Wharfe in Ilkley, which is a popular swimming and paddling spot, is to be added to the list of bathing waters next year, after months of campaigning.

It is the first time in the UK that a river has been designated as bathing water and means it will be subjected to a much tougher testing regime.

The designation means that from 2021 the Environment Agency will be required to test the water regularly during the year to determine the level of faecal pollution at the site. Bradford council will then be required to provide that information to the public.

Until now, only coastal waters in the UK have been given bathing water status – an EU directive brought in to safeguard public health and protect the aquatic environment from pollution. Bathing waters are classified annually as excellent, good, sufficient or poor, based on an assessment of the level of bacteria in the water over the preceding four years.

Becky Malby, from the Ilkley Clean River Campaign, said: “We are delighted and excited by this decision. This is a significant environmental landmark as a step towards cleaning up the river so that it is fit for people and wildlife, and we hope that more designations at rivers in the UK will follow.”

“We expect the designation to trigger a clean up of the sewage system, including investment in the sewage infrastructure.”

The designation comes after river users gathered evidence of how many people regularly used the river for swimming, paddling and other activities. The campaign produced figures from Yorkshire Water, which showed that in 2019 the Ilkley sewage works discharged raw sewage into the river over 114 days.

The campaign submitted an application to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who held a public consultation this autumn.

The new status for the stretch of the Wharfe between Ilkley Main Bridge and Beanlands Island at Ilkley, comes amid huge concerns over the state of rivers. Earlier this year, no English river met quality tests for pollution because of the scale of sewage discharges and agricultural and industrial chemicals entering the water system.

The Guardian revealed earlier this year that water companies released untreated sewage into rivers in England more than 204,000 times in 2019.

Campaigners in Ilkley saw achieving bathing water status as a way of cleaning up the river. They want the number of sewage discharges reduced to no more than three times a year.

In an interview with the Guardian, the chair of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd, said the idea of rivers becoming bathing waters was a “gamechanger”, which could drive more funding to clean up the water.

It is likely other campaigners will follow in Ilkley’s footsteps. In Bath, Johnny Palmer is seeking bathing water status for Warleigh Weir, a popular swimming spot, and in London a campaign by London Waterkeeper is attempting to get sections of the Thames designated as bathing water and in Oxford, the city council recently backed a motion for an area of the Thames to be given the status.

The Ilkley Clean River campaign has been in discussions with Yorkshire Water, which on Tuesday said it supported the bathing water status and were carrying out work to try to cut sewage discharges into the river by 20%.

Ben Roche, the director of wastewater at Yorkshire Water, said: “The health of our rivers is an issue that has really captured the attention of the public recently.

“Bathing water status puts the focus on the public health aspects of river quality, but we also need to look at the bigger picture to ensure the wider environmental health of the river is addressed. We hope this partnership on the Wharfe will play an important part in helping to improve the health of the river for both people and wildlife.”

Britain stands out in Europe for its lack of inland waterways fit for swimming. Until the Ilkley decision, no UK river had been given designated bathing water status. Germany has 38, Italy 73 and France has 573.

The environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “The residents of Ilkley and the surrounding area have shown their overwhelming appreciation for the River Wharfe as an asset to enjoy and protect. I am delighted that this stretch of river will be the first river to host a designated bathing water site.

“Unfortunately, we all know that water quality won’t change overnight. It will take time and we need farmers and businesses to commit to achieve the necessary improvements. I am pleased to see Yorkshire Water stepping forward with new proposals today to help move things in the right direction.”

Source:  The Guardian 22nd December 2020