The importance of bathing water status in driving change

River users enjoying Wallingford Beach. Photo by Julie Masters.

The government announced this week the designation of 27 new bathing sites in England. One of these is Wallingford Beach, the second site on the Thames. Thames21 submitted the application in October 2023 to Defra and we’re delighted to see that all the great work put in by our team, volunteers, and partners paid off.

Designated bathing water sites are regularly monitored by the Environment Agency (EA) during the bathing water season, which runs from the 15th of May to the 30th of September. The EA collects water samples across all sites to be tested in the lab and then publishes the results online and onsite to allow swimmers and river users to make informed decisions about how to enjoy the river safely.

While designated bathing waters don’t guarantee the water is clean or safe to swim, nor are they an invitation to get in the water, these definitely represent a step towards the right direction to safeguard our rivers and coastal sites from pollution. The UK is currently experiencing water and sewage management crises and gathering data is essential to advocate for better governance and policies to protect and restore nature.

The designation of Wolvercote Mill Stream (Port Meadow) as a bathing water site in 2022 is an example of how data enables change. We spoke to Claire Robertson, Thames21’s Oxford Rivers Project Officer, who was involved in the application. She told us how water sampling motivated a robust EA investigation which prompted Thames Water to bring forward improvements in their sewage plant upstream.

“Sometimes it can feel quite slow if you’re collecting this data and not seeing something change when it tells you that the river is in a poor state. However, we absolutely want to use this data to target improvements.

“For instance, with the bathing water designation, we started with citizen science testing the water and showing that despite being a popular swimming spot, it wasn’t safe for people to swim there. The data then led to a campaign to get the designation, granted in 2022. The poor water quality results persuaded the EA to conduct a £500,000 investigation which made Thames Water carry out improvements in its treatment plants upstream to increase its capacity.

“We’ve already noticed sewage spills decreasing upstream. The data gathered really helped us to make a case for getting improvements up the river from Oxford.”

This is a real-life case of how designation can drive infrastructure investments to tackle storm overflows. Another great example is the River Ilkley, which was the first UK river bathing water and has seen improvements since its designation. Yorkshire Water recently announced a £60 million plan to improve the bathing water stretch by re-routing sewer overflows and installing a reedbed and wetland to clean sewage effluent before it enters the River Wharfe. By learning more about a site’s water quality and identifying sources of pollution, it’s possible to implement nature-based solutions that can enhance river health such as installing wetlands, which naturally filter out pollutants, helping to clean the water.

Besides ensuring water quality testing, designation also puts a legal duty upon the local water company, the local authority, and the regulator to put measures in place to improve the water quality if it’s poor. We reiterate our message that water companies must speed up investment in sewage infrastructure to tackle the sewage problem at source and regulators must take tougher action on polluters.

Bathing water status has, overall, greatly improved water quality in our coastal areas (despite a small dip in recent years). In 1995, only 46% of designated bathing water sites met the minimum standard for swimming. In 2023, 96% met the minimum standard, and 90% were classed as “good” or “excellent”. The same thing can, and should, happen for rivers. It might seem like a drop in the ocean when it comes to safeguarding our waters. However, without water quality monitoring and highlighting the pollution sources affecting our blue spaces, we’re left in the dark and no action is taken. Evidence-based information is the only way we can advocate for and catalyse change.

“While bathing water status will not immediately solve that [water pollution] issue, it will mean that Thames Water would be legally required to treat waste outflows to a much higher standard, which is great news for people and wildlife”, said Cllr Freddie Van Mierlo, South Oxfordshire District Council Cabinet member for climate change and nature recovery.

The government has also announced that it will launch a consultation later this year on proposals to reform the Bathing Water Regulations for England. These changes aim to improve water quality and monitoring, as well as to enable flexibility around the dates of the bathing water monitoring season. We’re looking forward to seeing advancements in the regulation and consequently, in the health of our rivers and seas.