River pollution
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Surfers Against Sewage calls for action after survey finds poor water quality at popular inland bathing sites

Water quality monitoring shows many popular bathing sites would fall short of acceptable pollution limits but there are plenty of ways the swimming community can help bring about improvements

A new report released last week reveals that multiple popular inland swimming sites in England are unsafe for swimmers. Forty locations were sampled weekly by volunteer citizen scientists throughout the 2023 bathing season. 20 were popular sites for bathing, and 20 were upstream of a nearby sewage overflow associated with the swimming spots.

Of the 40 locations, SAS found that 24 would be deemed ‘poor’ quality were they designated bathing waters, as per Environment Agency methodology. Four out of 20 bathing sites showed a clear decrease in water quality from locations upstream to downstream of a sewage overflow. The data is released just weeks after the Government announced its intention to diverge from the EU’s standards for monitoring water quality in England.

Alarming findings

Surfers Against Sewage’s (SAS) annual water quality report reveals the state of UK bathing waters in a year when untreated sewage was discharged over 399,864 times into UK waterways – the equivalent of more than 1,000 discharge events every day. The report notes that the majority of overflows in Scotland and Northern Ireland go unreported, meaning this figure is likely a significant underestimate of the true frequency of sewage discharges into the UK’s rivers and seas. In Scotland only 4% of sewage overflows are monitored whilst Northern Ireland Water admits it lacks the ability to record or measure when sewage discharges occur.

Meanwhile, SAS have unearthed documents that indicate that Welsh Water have used emergency overflows – permitted only in the case of catastrophic events – to release sewage into a designated bathing water multiple times over the last two years. The Gwbert Emergency Overflow, which impacts the designated bathing water of Poppit Sands, discharged 24 times in the same number of months, indicating a clear breach of permit.

Giles Bristow, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Yet again, our annual water quality report reveals the complacency and disregard of governments, water companies and regulators towards the health of rivers and coastlines in the UK – and by extension people’s health.”

What we can do to help

Write to your MP

SAS say they have designed this year’s water quality report to empower communities across the UK to put pressure on their local representatives in the lead-up to a general election in 2024. In the last year, thousands have joined the protest for safer rivers and seas, with over 45,000 emails sent via SAS’s free Safer Seas and Rivers Service app to MPs and water company CEOs, calling for action to protect the UK’s waterways from further pollution.

This year SAS developed the End Sewage Pollution Manifesto, which sets out the policies needed to clean up our rivers and seas. Created in collaboration with environmental charities, sports governing bodies and community groups around the UK, the manifesto suggests a five-point plan to make the UK’s waters healthy and safe to enjoy again:

· Enforce the law and regulations
· Stop pollution for profit
· Prioritise high-risk pollution events
· Empower a nature-led approach to tackling sewage pollution
· Reveal the truth by ensuring UK-wide transparency on sewage pollution.

You can call on your local MP to support this manifesto, using the SAS call-to-action form.

Apply for bathing water status in your area

Another way to take action for the health of our blue spaces is to apply for bathing water status in your local area. This year four new swimming spots in England were designated as bathing waters, including Sykes Lane Bathing Beach and Whitwell Creek at Rutland Water, Firestone Bay in Plymouth and a section of the River Deben in Suffolk. This was all achieved by the power of community spirit and determination.

Learn how to apply for bathing water status in your area using the SAS toolkit.

Support an existing campaign

Using the SAS interactive map, you can find out if an application for bathing water status has already been made in your area. Explore the map to see if your local site has a campaign underway that you can join, or if you would like to submit your site to be added to the map.

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Abi writes swimming news stories and features for the Outdoor Swimmer website and manages the social media channels. She loves to swim, run, hike and SUP close to her home in Herefordshire. While she’s a keen wild swimmer, Abi is new to the world of open water events and recently completed her first open water mile. She has previously written for The Guardian, BBC Countryfile Magazine, BBC History Magazine and Ernest Journal.