Local people in a Yorkshire town are pressing for their river to become the first in the UK to be designated as a bathing area to force the authorities to clean up the water they say is being used as an open sewer.
In the spa town of Ilkley a grassroots campaign has uncovered the regular and routine dumping of untreated sewage by Yorkshire Water – with the approval of the Environment Agency – into the River Wharfe.
In the summer, the river is used by hundreds of children and families, wild swimmers and fishermen, but the work of the Ilkley Clean River campaign has shown that people are putting their health at risk.
Instead of deterring them from taking to the water, locals are demanding that the much-used stretch of river is designated a bathing water area – an endorsement that would force the water company and the Environment Agency to invest in the infrastructure and treatment required to clean up the river.
Becky Malby, an outdoor swimmer who helped set up the campaign, said the group had exposed a national problem involving water companies being allowed to discharge untreated sewage into rivers after minimal amounts of rain. She believes this is in breach of the EU urban waste water directive, which states that discharges should take place only in extreme and extraordinary weather conditions.
“Our monitoring found discharges after 8mm of rain – that’s a drizzle in Yorkshire,” said Malby.
Latest figures shared with the campaign by Yorkshire Water reveal that between April and December 2019 there were 136 legal discharges of untreated sewage into the river – all but one of which were given consent by the EA.
“We were told by someone from the Environment Agency: ‘You can’t expect to swim in the river. Well, we do expect to. If the river is not fit for humans it is not fit for fish to swim, it is not fit to support a healthy ecosystem,” said Malby. “People are totally outraged and horrified.”
When the campaign began, the EA told local people their river was not seen as a “high spill” area. So the locals set up a citizen testing regime run by retired scientists, which exposed the scale of legal sewage dumping into the river.
“This is a national problem. What we uncovered here is happening all over the country,” said Malby. “There is no proper monitoring of these discharges. We are using our application for bathing water status as a vehicle for us to generate enough support from both the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water to put in the development that is needed to make sure we have a clean river.”
While campaigns like that of Surfers Against Sewage have done much to clean up Britain’s coastal waters, campaigners say the country’s rivers are in a dire state. Just 14% of rivers are rated as good under the EU water framework directive, which provides a baseline quality for the health of wildlife and habitats in inland waters.
The much higher threshold of bathing water status applies a public health test to the water to ensure that levels of harmful coliform bacteria are within legal limits. Britain stands out in Europe for its lack of inland waterways fit for swimming. No UK river has designated bathing water status while Germany has 38, Italy 73 and France 573.
“It’s adventure activism,” said Alistair Maltby of the Rivers Trust, which supports Ilkley in its campaign. “People are going out and enjoying what they can of the wilderness in the UK and by doing so reclaiming the environment and forcing water companies and the Environment Agency to raise their game.”
To be granted bathing water status by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, locals have to show that a river in a town is used regularly for swimming. In 51 days of monitoring in Ilkley last summer, they found thousands of people swimming, paddling and playing in the water. On one weekday in July, 1,751 people swam in the river.
But their citizen monitoring showed that in one section of the popular outdoor swimming area, levels of E coli were 40-50 times higher than bathing water limits, where coliform bacteria must not exceed 900 colony-forming units per 100ml.
In a series of public meetings to garner support for cleaning up the river for swimming, the response was overwhelming, said Malby.
A survey of local people found 95% supported having clean water in the river fit for paddling, playing and swimming. Comments in the survey included: “Wild swimming is one of the greatest pleasures and this stretch of river is ideally suited for it – or would be if the water were safe to swim in.”
Another said: “In this time of public awareness about pollution and recycling to save the planet it is absolutely disgusting that Yorkshire Water allow this pollution to continue without any redress.”
Malby said: “Bathing water status gives the water companies the power to trigger a capital programme to stop this discharging. If our case is proven here, then it is proven nationally because this is happening up and down the country.
“People made significant amounts of money from the privatisation of the water industry and companies have not invested in the infrastructure necessary.”
A spokesperson for Yorkshire Water said: “We continue to have a constructive relationship with the Ilkley Clean River group and support their application to achieve bathing water designation for the River Wharfe, which would make it the first inland bathing water in the country.
“If achieved, we, like other stakeholders would need to make changes to maintain the designation. This would focus on the capacity of the combined sewer network which has been designed to deal with both foul and surface water.”
The Environment Agency said: “River pollution harms communities, landscapes and wildlife, which is why water companies have to meet tough standards set by law and the Environment Agency. If they fail to do so we take action against them, up to and including criminal prosecution.
“While water quality has improved dramatically over the last decade, we acknowledge there is much more to do. The Environment Agency has successfully secured significant new investment from the water companies to reduce pollution and protect water quality.”