Thames21 submits applications to secure bathing water status for Henley and Wallingford

Environmental charity Thames21 has submitted two applications to the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) in hopes to obtain bathing water designations for two stretches of the River Thames – Wallingford Beach and Henley-on-Thames-based Mill Meadows.

The charity has submitted the bids with support from South Oxfordshire District Council, Wallingford Town Council and Henley Town Council.

These applications form part of Thames21’s ‘Reclaim our Rivers’* project, which aims to increase the number of inland bathing waters across the Thames Basin, addressing the polluted state of the UK’s rivers. There is a clear need for more safe spaces to swim outdoors, with only three inland bathing waters along currently designated along rivers in England. 

Throughout the bathing water season (May to September), Thames21 has worked with local authorities, connected with local environment and community groups, and engaged with more than 230 individuals and local organisations as part of the consultation process for the applications.

In both locations, 97% of responses were in support of designating their local stretch of river as a bathing water site, with many sharing heartfelt stories and memories of Oxfordshire’s rivers and the need to protect them from pollution and degradation.

Under the Reclaim our Rivers project, Thames21 has trained 49 citizen scientists from the local communities in Henley-on-Thames and Wallingford. These groups recorded the number of bathers, with the busiest days reaching 391 and 545 for Wallingford Beach and Mill Meadows respectively. Demonstrating the popularity of these recreational sites is essential to a successful application, and the contributions of these networks of citizen scientists have been invaluable to both bathing water projects.

Citizen scientists were also trained in water quality sampling as part of a weekly monitoring programme throughout the bathing water season. A total of 140 samples were analysed by Thames Water for E.Coli and Intestinal Enterococci, two bacteria which indicate faecal matter and pose a serious risk to human health. Although Defra does not require water quality monitoring as part of the application process, the results of this weekly sampling have helped to identify local sources of pollution, and, if successful, will expedite further investigations to address and resolve pollution events in Wallingford and Henley-on-Thames.

Thames21 expects to receive a response from Defra regarding the outcome of the applications by spring 2024. If bathing water status is awarded, Thames Water would be legally required to treat waste outflows to a higher standard, meaning they could not release water into the river without ensuring the removal of bacteria, which is harmful to the health of people and wildlife. At designated bathing waters, the Environment Agency is also required to monitor the water quality on a weekly basis throughout the bathing season and publicise the overall results. This allows local communities to make informed choices and feel safe when accessing and enjoying their local river.

Chris Coode, CEO at Thames21, said: “Water quality and the health of rivers must improve. Bathing water designations can act as much-needed drivers of change, through which positive improvements can be achieved for the health of the river and local communities.

“The Reclaim our Rivers project is bringing together the voices of individuals, groups, and communities to advocate for their local river, whilst sharing best practice and lessons learnt. Thames21 is calling for more inland bathing water designations across the Thames Basin. It is vital that rivers are safe, healthy spaces for local communities to access and enjoy. I am hopeful that Defra recognises the popularity of these bathing water sites, and these two applications are successful.”

*The Reclaim our Rivers Project is kindly funded by Garfield Weston Foundation and The Fishmongers’ Company, with sampling services provided by Thames Water.