River Wharfe in Ilkley becomes first section of river in UK to be given bathing water status

Christmas has come early for swimmers and environmental campaigners in Yorkshire after it was announced a stretch of the River Wharfe in Ilkley will become the first in the UK to be given bathing water status.

This is a significant environmental landmark ensuring the river is fit for people and wildlife, and means that from 2021 the Environment Agency will be required to test the water regularly during the year to determine pollution at the site – much like bathing water in coastal areas.

The application for bathing water status came from the town residents – represented by Ilkley Clean River Group – who were concerned about the levels of pollution in the river.

It is hoped that the application, which is supported by Ilkley Town Council, Bradford Council, and Yorkshire Water, will ensure more rivers will be able to be recognised for bathing across the UK.

“Ilkley is a popular spot for the public to picnic and enjoy the river,” say Ilkley campaigners. “Over the last two summers when we have been counting numbers of people, there were days where there were 1000+ people paddling, playing, swimming and using the riverbank, with numbers reaching 1,750 on one day.”

Citizen science studies have shown that conditions for swimming in the designated stretch of the river are often good when river levels are low. Conditions are worst in wet weather, when untreated sewage is discharged into the Wharfe from the Addingham pumping station two miles upstream. The water quality is always a risk to public health downstream of the designated site, which is still an area used for recreation by locals and visitors.

A designated bathing water status triggers four important actions:

  1. Regular testing of water quality by the Environment Agency to determine if it is safe to paddle, play and swim in.
  2. Signage indicating if the water is clean enough to paddle, play or swim in.
  3. A management plan for the river so that there are the facilities for the people who already visit to paddle swim and play.
  4. A full investigation of the sources of pollution in the river, and the subsequent implementation of a solution to clean up the river.

Until now, only coastal waters in the UK have been given bathing water status – an EU directive brought in to safeguard public health and protect the aquatic environment from pollution.

Bathing waters are classified annually as excellent, good, sufficient or poor, based on an assessment of the level of bacteria in the water over the preceding four years.

The UK has a serious lack of inland water safe enough to swim in, across Europe, Germany has 38, Italy 73 and France has 573.

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Ella is renowned outdoor swimmer and journalist. As well as leading the editorial, digital and experiential outputs for Outdoor Swimmer she is also Director of Dip Advisor, a swim guiding business helping people enjoy wild water. Ella also teaches swimming to children and adults, is an Open Water Coach and RLSS Open Water Lifeguard.