‘It’s disgusting’: Bacteria makes most river swimming spots unsafe
Nearly two thirds of popular swimming spots on English rivers have been found to have unsafe levels of bacteria.
While hundreds of beaches are designated bathing waters, there are just three such areas on rivers, including sections of Wolvercote Mill Stream, near Oxford, the Wharfe in Yorkshire and the Deben in Suffolk. Designation denotes regular water quality testing by officials between May and September.
It leaves popular sites used for activities from wild swimming to paddleboarding largely unmonitored.
The charity Surfers Against Sewage sent “citizen scientists” to take samples at 40 sites on 11 rivers including the Thames, Dart, Itchen, Stour and Dee. They tested for E. coli and intestinal Enterococci levels, both indicators of faeces being present.
The group found that 24 sites would be ranked poor for high bacteria levels, the worst on the Environment Agency’s four-level classification system for bathing waters.
While the locations are not bathing waters, all of them are used for recreation and half of them are where locals are in the process of applying for designation.
The testing also found cases of water quality deteriorating downstream of storm overflows, relief valves that released raw sewage more than 300,000 times last year. On the Severn at Shrewsbury, water went from sufficient to poor, and it went from excellent to sufficient at the Thames by Kennington and Longbridges.
The charity also received 1,924 reports of people being sick after swimming in rivers and seas last year, three times as many as 2021.
Hannah Cushion, who fell ill after an endurance swim in the Thames last year, said: “I had sickness, I had diarrhoea, I was in bed for 24 hours and the symptoms lasted for 48 hours.”
Steve Reed, the shadow environment secretary, said: “It is disgusting that families and children cannot enjoy our waters without the threat of getting sick.”
Rebecca Pow, the water minister, said: “We agree the volume of pollution in our waters is utterly unacceptable, and this is the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it.”
The government and the Environment Agency lost a legal challenge over its failure to protect the Upper Costa Beck, a fly fishing river in North Yorkshire, on Monday.
Pickering Fishery Association and the campaign group Fish Legal brought a judicial review against what they argued were shortcomings in the Humber river basin management plan.
Fish Legal said that it was a “landmark” case. The government said that it was “carefully considering the outcome”.
The Times’s Clean it Up campaign has been calling for the designation of hundreds of bathing waters on rivers by the end of this decade. Find out more about the Clean It Up campaign.