Yorkshire river first in UK to be given bathing water status after campaign to make it cleaner and safer

Currently all of the UK’s rivers are polluted, according to the government

The River Wharfe at Ilkley, West Yorkshire
The River Wharfe at Ilkley, West Yorkshire

A stretch of river popular for swimming and paddling in West Yorkshire has become the first in the UK to be designated with bathing water status in a move which will help make it cleaner and safer.

From 2021, part of the River Wharfe running through Ilkley will be added to the government’s list of bathing waters in England after a successful local campaign.

The status means from May until September, water quality will be monitored by the Environment Agency to assess if further action is required to cut contamination levels and reduce bacteria - particularly faecal bacteria from sewage.

The designation has previously only been applied for the UK’s coastal waters and some lakes - an initiative which was the result of an EU directive designed to ensure public and environmental health in popular bathing areas.

Waters are given annual classifications as being excellent, good, sufficient or poor, dictated by tests measuring the amount of bacteria in the water over the previous four years.

The monitoring has been carried out by the Environment Agency since the 1990s and has seen a significant improvement in water quality during this time.

However, this is the first time a river will be on the list, and keeping it clean could be a major challenge.

Not least because every river in England is polluted because of the huge level of sewage and industrial chemicals draining into them, and only one in seven of them met a “good” ecological standard, according to a government assessment earlier this year.

In a Facebook post, Ilkley Clean River Group said “We did it!”, and said the designation was “good news for our local kids who use that area in the summer”.

Any surface water can be designated as a bathing site if it is used by a large number of people and meets requirements and there are currently 12 inland bathing waters in England - all on lakes.

The announcement comes as Yorkshire Water confirmed a new multi-agency partnership to improve water quality in the River Wharfe, with plans to reduce storm overflow discharges by 20 per cent and increase the use of technology to predict and prevent pollution incidents.

The partnership, which includes the Environment Agency, Bradford Council, NFU, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and landowners upstream of Ilkley, aims to look more widely at the overall health of the river to ensure that improvements are made for the natural environment across the catchment.

Rebecca Pow, environment minister, said: “The residents of Ilkley and the surrounding area have shown their overwhelming appreciation for the River Wharfe as an asset to enjoy and protect.

“I am delighted that this stretch of river will be the first river to host a designated bathing water site.

“Unfortunately, we all know that the water quality won't change overnight. It will take time and we need farmers and businesses to commit to achieve the necessary improvements.”

Ben Roche, director of wastewater at Yorkshire Water, said: “The health of our rivers is an issue that has really captured the attention of the public recently.

“This, combined with the impacts of climate change mean we need to look at what we want our rivers to be like in future.

“Bathing water status puts the focus on the public health aspects of river quality but we also need to look at the bigger pictures to ensure the wider environmental health of the river is addressed.

“We hope this partnership on the Wharfe will play an important part in helping to improve the health of the river for both people and wildlife.”

Martin Christmas, area environment manager for the Environment Agency in North Yorkshire, said: “This announcement is an important milestone for the Yorkshire region and its river users and a nationally significant one as it is the first designated river bathing water in the country."

He added: “We will be monitoring the river and collaborating with our bathing water partners on this landmark project.”

Additional reporting by PA.

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