April 2023,  EXTRA,  NEWS

All but one application for river bathing water status rejected

The Government has rejected all but one application for bathing water status for English rivers, angering campaigners. River Deben at Waldringfield in Suffolk goes through to open consultation. 

Multiple bathing water applications submitted in time for the October 2022 deadline have been declined. Part of the River Deben at Waldringfield in Suffolk has moved through to open consultation but proposals for eight other river sites were declined, with campaigners saying that no explanation has been given for their rejection. 

It’s a deflating moment for the applicants and communities who have spent so much time working on their application. “This is a massive disappointment to those who worked so hard last year to go through the process of applying for bathing water status, and for anyone who cares about river water quality,” said Simon Griffiths, Founder and Publisher of Outdoor Swimmer. “It will also discourage the many groups that are mobilising for an application this year.”

Bathing water standards draw on World Health Organisation research into stomach upsets in people bathing in waters with different levels of E. coli and intestinal enterococci bacteria (which usually enter the water via sewage and manure). Granting Bathing Designation Water Status means that rivers would be subject to the same rigorous public health testing that coastal bathing waters are currently subject to. The Environment Agency would be obliged to test the water regularly throughout the bathing season (15 May – 30 Sep), while the landowner must display signage displaying the water quality. 

Currently only 14% of rivers in England are considered to be at ‘Good Ecological Status’, mainly a result of sewage and diffused pollution. Ordinarily, sewage goes through several rounds of treatment to remove harmful bacteria before it’s released into rivers and the sea. However, sewage plants also have release valves, designed to empty untreated sewage directly into streams and rivers during exceptionally high rainfall. In practice, these releases are happening much more frequently. Across England in 2021, raw sewage was released over 350,000 times into English rivers. 

Disappointment for swimmers at Wallingford Beach

Wallingford Beach – a popular place for swimmers, kayakers and stand-up paddlenboarders immediately downstream from Wallingford Bridge – is among eight places rejected for bathing water status. Green councillors and campaigners have slammed the application process for bathing water status as “opaque and not fit for purpose”. 

South Oxfordshire District Council, Wallingford Town Council and rivers charity Thames21 submitted a joint application for Bathing Water Status last year. The application followed a summer of water quality testing and river user monitoring by dozens of local volunteers and councillors.

Conservative Secretary of State for Environment Therese Coffey confirmed the application had been unsuccessful in a letter sent on Thursday night, although no specific reasons were given.

“I am so disappointed and angry, for everyone who worked so hard on this bid,” said Green councillor and River Thames Champion Jo Robb, who led the Wallingford campaign. “We have no idea why the application has been refused. The process is opaque and seemingly random. We had no opportunity to respond to DEFRA’s concerns and were not even aware there were any concerns until we were told the application had been refused.”

Robb describes the rejection, which came with no explanation, as “utterly baffling” and called upon DEFRA to publish clear criteria, consult properly on applications and give applicants a fair opportunity to respond to concerns. 

“The whole experience has been defined by a total lack of transparency and due process. To submit an application, hear nothing for four months then be rejected without clear reasons is shocking and has a strong whiff of political interference.”

Interestingly, at the same time as rejecting so many applications, DEFRA also tweeted “We want to designate more sites as bathing waters.”

Regular swimmers at Wallingford have also voiced their disappointment and concerns. “People have enjoyed bathing and paddling at Wallingford for years. Our community worked so hard for this and to be refused outright with no explanation is both baffling and unacceptable,” said Wallingford Green campaigner and regular river swimmer James Barlow. 

“The decision and process are as murky as the Thames today – where, right now, Thames Water’s own monitoring shows at least three ongoing raw sewage discharges into the stretch of river affecting Wallingford!”

Kirsty Davies from Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) says of the rejections, “The government has claimed that they want to increase the number of designated bathing water sites but it’s becoming obvious that this is just another empty promise. We’ve been working with communities of water-users who have been thorough and committed in their applications for designated bathing water status but who have now been blindly declined. The system is a farce. 

These rejections are a slap in the face for communities who are trying to tackle the sewage pollution crisis. DEFRA’s vague feedback and incomprehensible guidelines require a mystical number of bathing water users at each site for the application to be successful. Without transparency about what the requirements for designation are, communities across the UK will continue to have their time wasted by DEFRA.

It’s a catch 22. They won’t care for waters that aren’t designated, but we apply for designation, and they decline. The government need to step up and follow through with their commitments.”

The encouraging news

One piece of encouraging news is that three inland and one marine applications have made it to the consultation stage – two on Rutland Water (Sykes Lane Bathing Beach and Whitwell Creek); the River Deben at Waldringfield in Suffolk; and Firestone Bay, Plymouth – and DEFRA has opened a consultation on the four new sites.

Kirsty Davies wrote to campaigners to reassure them that SAS along with other groups are discussing next steps and how they push DEFRA to be more transparent and amend the assessment criteria with rivers in mind.

“Keep fighting the good fight,” said Kirsty Davies, Surfers Against Sewage. “Your hard work isn’t going unnoticed and the campaigning you are doing in your communities will get us closer to cleaning up our rivers.”

Want to get involved? Support the four applications that have made it through to the open consultation here. You can also write to your local MP to say that swim in rivers and lakes in their constituency and how important it is that water users are given transparency on water quality information, and how bathing water is a mechanism in doing this. Sign up to the Outdoor Swimmer newsletter for more water quality and environment news.

Image: The start of the MST Event’s Long Reach Swim at Wallingford Bridge in 2017 © Rob Gower.

To see all the online content from the April 2023 issue of Outdoor Swimmer, visit the 'Underwater' page.
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Jo is the Gear Editor for Outdoor Swimmer and also writes news and features for the website. A keen open water swimmer and long-distance walker, she loves seeking out lakes and lidos close to her home in the Mendip Hills, Somerset. She is the author of The Slow Traveller, editor and founder of independent magazine, Ernest, and has previously tested outdoor clothing and kit for BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC Focus and Ernest Journal.