DEFRA has decided to put forward an application for designated bathing water status on the River Thames in Oxford for national consultation.
If successful, the site will be only the second river swimming area in the UK, after the River Wharfe at Ilkley. Campaigners hope the designation will make it safer for swimmers and other river users, and will reduce the number of raw sewage discharges upstream of the site. Anyone may respond to the consultation, which closes on 2nd March.
The application, submitted by the Oxford Rivers Project (a partnership project between Oxford City Council, environmental charity Thames21, The Rivers Trust and Thames Water) shows that the site is very popular, with upwards of 400 people entering the river at peak times in the summer.
Last year, a report on water quality testing for harmful bacteria at the site showed that after rainfall, bacteria levels can rise to up to 8 times the safe limit. However, in drier months, such as July and August, the quality was good.
Claire Robertson, the Thames21 Oxford Rivers Project Officer who submitted the application, said: “It’s self-evident that such a well-loved and well-used site should have water quality testing to help people enjoy the river safely and healthily. It’s even more self-evident that raw sewage discharges should not happen anywhere near this site, for peoples’ health, but also for the many wildlife species that live in this stretch. We hope our application, if successful, will be part of the growing movement to clean up our rivers nationwide and force water companies to treat them as they should be treated – as beautiful, precious natural places – not as an extension of the sewer network.”
Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, said: “I am delighted to see that DEFRA has chosen to progress one of the applications for bathing water status. This gives people across the country the opportunity to let the Department know how important it is that this application is granted. People are fed up with swimming in polluted rivers. Ensuring that this stretch of the Thames is being regularly tested will encourage many more to visit the beautiful Port Meadow and enjoy swimming.
I encourage everyone to take part in this consultation, and show the Government the strength of local feeling on this issue. I will tell the Government how important granting this application is, and I hope that the many people across Oxford who have expressed their concerns about sewage pollution will do so too.”
Once a site is designated as a Bathing Water site, the Environment Agency has a duty to test the water regularly, and the landowner, must display signage displaying the water quality – classified from ‘Excellent to Poor’.
The application has strong local support, including unanimous support from Oxford City Councillors and a debate in Parliament tabled by MP Layla Moran. 96% of local people consulted were in favour of designating the site, with many respondents noting that multiple generations have learnt to swim at the site.
Another questionnaire of local Oxford residents found that of 1,200 respondents, 75% swam in the river weekly in the summer months. Combined with the numerous rowing clubs and the many tourist punts that make up the Oxford river scene, it’s surprising river water testing for public health has not been carried out before now.