Ocean Pollution

Surfers Against Sewage calls for official river swim spots

Written by Oceanographic Staff

Surfers Against Sewage, an environmental charity that has been campaigning to end sewage pollution for over 30 years, has called for over 200 river bathing waters to be designated by 2030 to help tackle sewage pollution.

The call comes just weeks before new data is due to be issued by the Environment Agency on the scale of sewage discharges released by water companies in 2021. Surfers Against Sewage is now demanding that swimmers, paddle boarders and kayakers on rivers, lakes and streams have access to the same high standard of water as those who surf, sail and swim at the coast. The charity has therefore recently launched a petition calling for the UK government to designate at least 200 inland bathing waters by 2030.

In 2020, sewage was released into the environment over 400,000 times equating to 3.1 million hours of discharge. Only 14% of UK rivers currently meet ‘good ecological status’ with none passing chemical tests, suggesting pollution from sewage discharge, chemicals and agriculture is having a huge impact on river quality. Findings from Surfers Against Sewage’s citizen science research suggests that 75% of rivers tested would be classified as ‘poor’ under the current testing regime, posing a continuous serious risk to human health. 

The charity says that pollution from sewage discharges, agricultural run-off and chemicals are putting the population at risk of getting sick from illnesses such as gastroenteritis, E.coli, ear nose and throat infections and eye infections. With rivers flowing directly into the sea, it’s clear that the state of rivers impacts directly the health of the ocean.

Hugo Tagholm, CEO at Surfers Against Sewage, says: “Designated bathing waters are a powerful tool to help bring communities together, driver water quality improvements, and protect both people and planet. More Bathing Waters, both coastal and inland, will shine a light on poor water quality in our rivers, lakes and beaches and so be the catalyst for real, systemic change. We need to see hundreds more official swimming sites throughout our rivers, to help drive a decade of ambition for clean water. 

“The public demand rivers and beaches free from sewage pollution, and Bathing Water status is the first step to making this a reality. Action must be taken from source to sea, and we must ensure that the government and the water industry move from making good statements to making good all our blue spaces to delivering thriving blue environments for all. It’s time to end sewage pollution once and for all.”

Of the more than 600 designated bathing waters in England and Wales only one is located on a river, the River Wharf at Ilkley, Yorkshire. This is despite the fact that 4.3 million people visit the UK’s inland blue spaces every fortnight.

Achieving designated bathing waters status places a legal obligation on government to improve the water quality at designated locations. Along the coastline, 98% of bathing waters now meet minimum water quality standards, under the current testing regime, up from just 27% meeting the equivalent standard in the 1990s. The River Wharf at Ilkley however has been classified as ‘poor’ with bathing water designation placing the onus on the regulator and water company to drastically improve the water quality for those swimming, paddling and playing in the water. Surfers Against Sewage are calling for an increase in designated river bathing waters, stating that achieving designation is the first step to cleaning up the UK’s rivers.

Rebecca Malby from Ilkley Clean River Campaign Group says: “Bathing Status clearly puts pressure on the water Companies and Environment Agency to take action. The Environment Committee’s ambition for bathing sites was underwhelming. It is clear that we must have bathing sites across UK rivers to secure clean water for people and wildlife, and this must reflect the public’s real concerns that our rivers are being used as open sewers for profit.”

To sign the petition, click here.

For more from our Ocean Newsroom, click here.

Photography courtesy of Surfers Against Sewage.

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