HomeNatural environmentUK water quality statistics are hiding a big problem for wild swimmers

UK water quality statistics are hiding a big problem for wild swimmers

In August, an image I shared via Twitter on UK bathing water quality in 2020, relative to other European countries, was to my surprise shared widely. However, I later removed it because it became apparent that the image, originally published in The Guardian, was misleading. It gave a low score for the UK (saying that just 17 per cent of bathing waters were rated ‘excellent’). But this was because most bathing water sites had not been evaluated for water quality that year due to the pandemic. In reality, 68 per cent of the UK’s bathing waters were rated ‘excellent’ in 2021. England’s score of 71 per cent was reported by the Environmental Agency as the highest since new standards were introduced in 2015. 

Official statistics don’t tell the whole story
But it turns out these more positive sounding official numbers aren’t telling the whole story. As reporting bathing water quality is a devolved matter, I will focus on England’s bathing waters, which are assessed by the Environment Agency. When you look at a map of England’s officially designated bathing waters, one issue becomes apparent: nearly all of them are along the coast, with barely any inland. It is particularly striking that there are only two along the 2,546 natural rivers in England, namely the River Wharfe at Ilkley in West Yorkshire and Wolvercote Mill Stream on the River Thames, near Oxford. 

In contrast to other European countries, UK rivers are not faring well. The Ilkley bathing site, which gained bathing water designation in 2020, had its water quality assessed as ‘poor’ in 2021. Wolvercote Mill Stream is yet to be officially assessed as it was only designated in 2022.  The Environment Agency’s most recent wider evaluation suggested that just 14 per cent of England’s rivers were in good ‘ecological health’ while none were good based on ‘chemical health’. However, in contrast to bathing water regulations, these assessments did not explicitly consider risks to bathers’ health. 

It may be a surprise to learn that most rivers are not included in official bathing water quality statistics, especially as so many rivers in England are regularly used for swimming. Where I live in Cambridge, for instance, the River Cam is a popular swimming spot during the summer months but it is not assessed. Many rivers like this, that people choose to swim in, are highly polluted and so are not necessarily safe. By ignoring the majority of these unofficial river swimming spots in calculations, the official statistics are painting a false picture of the state of England’s bathing waters. This is putting the public at risk. 

By avoiding assessment of the sites worst affected by water pollution, the statistics can’t signal where improvement is needed to make them safe for swimming. Being identified as bathing waters means that those sites that are designated must, by law, be monitored and assessed for faecal bacteria levels annually. If legally required standards are not met, the Environment Agency investigates and offers solutions, driving action to improve them.  

There is a river bathing catch-22
For a site to be designated it needs to meet strict criteria which include demonstrating that significant numbers of people use it for swimming. In some cases, like the River Wharfe, this might be true, despite the poor quality. But poor water quality usually discourages people from swimming in rivers, creating a catch-22. If people don’t swim because the water is bad, the site will never be designated or checked for bathing and the water quality won’t improve, so swimmers won’t use it.  

The Environmental Audit Committee published a report in January looking into the issue, which the government welcomed. It stated that everyone should have access to waters safe to swim in without the risk of falling ill, and that progress made on coastal areas should be extended to rivers. One of its main recommendations was that the government should actively encourage the designation of at least one widely used stretch of river for bathing in each water company area by 2025 at the latest. In a similar though more ambitious vein, Surfers Against Sewage recently called for 200 inland bathing water sites in the UK by 2030. This process requires collaboration between landowners, local authorities, water companies and local communities. But, despite the workload it might involve, the idea is gaining traction.   

Worryingly, instead of progress towards this aim, the government is reviewing all EU-legacy legislation by the end of 2023, through the Retained EU Law bill, which could mean an end to the 2013 Bathing Waters Regulations, initially adopted via a 2006 EU directive. It could lead to a situation where no swimming spots are monitored for water quality at all in the future. But, if the government is serious about improving rivers and retains these regulations, it should be expanding the eligibility rules so more inland waters are designated for bathing. 

More and more people are attracted to wild swimming for health and to get closer to nature. For England’s rivers and inland waterways to be in a fit state for bathers, we first need to call them ‘bathing waters’. 

Written by

Verner is a policy analyst at Green Alliance.

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