Push for bathing water quality hailed as ‘game changer’ for UK rivers

Environment Agency boss calls for more funding to help public embrace wild swimming 

Guardian Sandra Laville

Growing pressure to clean up Britain’s rivers to meet bathing water quality is a “game changer” that will require more government funding as the public embrace the outdoors, the head of the Environment Agency has said.

A growing number of river users are calling for action to tackle the routine and legal discharge of untreated sewage into Britain’s waterways, which they say amounts to treating them like an open sewer.  Campaigners in Ilkley, West Yorkshire, have applied for the River Wharfe to be granted bathing water status, which will force Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency to clean up the river, dramatically reduce or stop sewage discharges, and regularly monitor the water quality.

In the south-east, Theo Thomas, the chief executive of campaign group London Waterkeeper, is aiming to have sections of the Thames designated as bathing water, and in the Cotswolds, the Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (Wasp) campaign is preparing to apply for bathing water status for three areas of the River Windrush where people have swum for decades.

Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, welcomed what she said was the “public embracing the environment”. “This move to bathing water status is a game changer in terms of moving the dial as to what is expected from water quality,” she said.

“There is a whole process that has to be gone through in terms of numbers [using the rivers] and other requirements, but we went through that programme with bathing waters in the sea. I think this could really move us to the next stage in terms of how we work on the water issue.”

There are 15,700 combined sewerage overflows where the EA permits water companies to discharge untreated sewage into rivers in extreme weather conditions, according to WWF figures. But WWF analysis shows the overflows are discharging sewage far more often than they should be.

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.’

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