Official UK swimming rivers are too polluted to swim in

The River Wharfe at Ilkley was England’s first swimming river

Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

There are almost 1500 rivers in the UK, but only two stretches are officially approved as swimming destinations – and even these are currently too polluted to be used safely. While activists hope other rivers will soon receive this “swimable status” designation, some fear the label is misleading, as there are few requirements for cleaning up pollution that can harm health and the local ecology.

Environmental matters are devolved to the UK, meaning the UK government oversees bathing waters in England, while Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland govern their own affairs.

Save Britain's rivers

More than 400 bathing waters in England are monitored by the UK Environment Agency (EA) for levels of Escherichia coliwhich causes diarrhea and intestinal enterococci, which are associated with urinary tract infections.

These tests are carried out 20 times at each site during the ‘swimming season’ from mid-May to the end of September. Most are beaches, with only two stretches of river: Ilkley Swimming Area on the River Wharfe in West Yorkshire and a stretch of the Thames in Oxford. No other UK nation has designated swimming rivers.

Based on its measurements, the EA categorizes swimming waters as either excellent, good, adequate or poor. Last year, 93 percent were rated excellent or good, but the two rivers were rated poor. Swimming is still allowed in them, but officials have had to put up signs advising people not to.

Part of the problem is that applications for swim status do not require water quality testing, with testing only taking place after status is granted. Given the generally poor state of England’s rivers, the newly granted rivers are likely to be in poor health. In fact, the only requirement, set by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, is that the water has “a large number of bathers in relation to any infrastructure or facilities provided”. In other words, water can take on swimming status even if people are swimming in the pollution. Young Scientist asked EA why it doesn’t test for other pollutants, but it declined to comment.

Richard Tyler at the Save the Wye Coalition, a campaign group aiming to improve the water quality of the UK’s fourth longest river, says he fears the general public do not understand the distinction between a river’s swimmable status and its ecological status . “Just because it’s safe to swim in a river doesn’t mean it can’t still be polluted,” he says.

Cleaning rivers takes time. Ilkley only gained swimmable status in 2020, the first stretch of English river to do so, with the Thames at Oxford to follow in 2022. The poor condition of these rivers is likely due to sewage and farm runoff allowing bacteria to flourish, says Alistair Boxall at the University of York, UK.

Create accountability

Ruth Leach is leading a campaign to gain swimming status for a section of the River Deben, Suffolk, in the hope that it will be monitored and cleaned up by the EA and Anglian Water, the company responsible for treating the area’s sewage . “It’s about creating some accountability and opening up water companies to scrutiny,” he says.

Anglian Water says it supports the campaign and, after speaking to Leach, tests the Deben once a week for E. coli and levels of intestinal enterococci. “As part of the Get River Positive programme, we are committed to making sure our activities are not the reason for the poor health of the river,” a spokesman said. Young Scientist understands EA is expected to make a decision on Deben’s status in time for this year’s swimming season.

But Tyler says simply measuring the bacteria in a body of water isn’t enough. For example, phosphorus, which can leach from local farms, has little direct effect on human health and is rarely monitored in bathing waters. However, it is a major issue for rivers as it leads to increased algae growth. This can reduce oxygen levels in rivers, harming local animal and plant life, Tyler says, and some algae can be dangerous to humans.

Boxall says the EA also doesn’t monitor for household pollutants, such as medicines and shampoos, that can end up in rivers. “We’ve done research that shows ibuprofen levels in half of England’s rivers can be damaging fish health,” he says.

Rivers in densely populated urban areas of England also appear to contain high levels of antibiotics, Boxall says, but there is no requirement to test bathing water for their presence. “There is some suspicion that river systems could be contributing to the antimicrobial resistance crisis,” he says. “But there are no limits to how much antibiotics can be released from wastewater treatment projects into rivers.”

Some river activists have shied away from seeking swimmable status. Susan Buckingham at Friends of the Cam says her group did not support moves by other local campaigners to seek swimming status for part of the River Cam in Cambridge. “The reason we exist is to make the rivers clean and have free-flowing rivers, but actually having a swimming quality designation is kind of meaningless,” he says.

When asked if people can safely swim in swimmable rivers, EA declined to comment. But there is some evidence that defining swimming waters and monitoring them for bacteria makes them safer for people to swim in. Nick Voulvoulis at Imperial College London points out that many of England’s coastal bathing waters were in much worse shape several decades ago. According to the EA, just 28 per cent of bathing waters met the highest standards in place in the 1990s. Today, the figure is 72 per cent – ​​although direct comparisons are difficult to make as stricter guidelines were introduced in 2015.

Ensuring swimmable rivers have lower levels E. coli and levels of intestinal enterococci are likely to require the installation of more wastewater treatment facilities, says Voulvoulis. Such facilities are expensive, but it has improved water quality in coastal locations, he says. Last year, UV disinfection measures were added to the sewage plant near the Ilkley swimming spot, in the hope it will reduce the levels of germs released by the plant into the River Wharfe.

To make rivers truly pollution-free, swimming conditions can only be the beginning, says Boxall. Taking pharmaceutical pollution as an example, he notes that new cosmetics are often not rigorously tested for their effect on water bodies. “We could redesign these products to make them safer for the marine environment,” he says.

Meanwhile, Tyler argues that the best way to solve the Wye’s phosphorus problem would be to tackle chicken manure from nearby farms, which last year was found to be one of the main sources of phosphate pollution in the river.

Each polluted river in England is likely to have a unique set of problems, so each will require a unique set of solutions. But Jamie Woodward from the University of Manchester, UK, argues that to solve any of these problems, we first need detailed river monitoring systems, beyond simply focusing on bacteria. “In terms of environmental stewardship, I would say we’re a failed state right now,” he says. “We don’t even have the data to say how bad we really are.”


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