<p>Wild swimming in rivers and bays has become a year-round activity</p>

Wild swimming in rivers and bays has become a year-round activity

Water industry calls for cleaner ‘bathing rivers’ for wild swimmers amid sewage pollution fears

‘Legislation on rivers was not designed with swimming in mind,’ says Water UK

Lucy Thackray
Tuesday 05 October 2021 13:24

Campaigners are calling for tougher restrictions on sewage pollution in public waters, as water companies flood UK bathing spots and over half of England’s rivers are found to be contaminated.

In a report released yesterday, Water UK called for a clean-up of dedicated “bathing rivers” as well as the introduction of a “Rivers Act” to provide greater protection for the UK’s rivers.

“Rivers have been in a state of crisis for much of the last hundred years, and though there’s been huge progress in the last few decades, there’s much more to do and an urgent need for everyone involved to address the challenges together,” said Christine McGourty, chief executive of Water UK.

“Water companies are passionate about their own role as stewards of the natural environment and are committed to playing their part, but what’s needed is a clear, single, national plan, involving everyone – river users, customer groups, environmental charities, government, regulators as well as agriculture, highways, and all the sectors impacting river quality.”

Despite the surge in public enthusiasm for wild swimming, figures released by the Rivers Trust last month show that only 14 per cent of England’s water bodies are in good ecological health, and every single one fails to meet chemical standards.

Water UK says: “Legislation on rivers was not designed with swimming in mind. This has led to a very slow adoption of measures to improve conditions.”

Southern Water has also been criticised this week for its overflows of sewage into bays off the southeast coast of England during the heavy rains over the weekend.

According to figures on their own website, the water company released raw sewage at more than half of its locations around the southeast coast, including popular swimming spots off the Isle of Wight, Herne Bay and Ramsgate Sands.

Water companies occasionally “overflow” sewage into public waters to avoid it backing up into homes and streets, a measure that is supposed to be used only in “exceptional” circumstances.

On 13 September, the House of Lords passed an amendment to the Environment Bill that will place a new duty on water companies and the government to “take all reasonable steps to ensure untreated sewage is not discharged from storm overflows and requires that they progressively reduce the harm caused by these discharges”.

Christine Colvin of the Rivers Trust welcomed the amendment, saying: “We know that it won’t happen overnight, but this sets an explicit ambition for government to accelerate investment from the water companies into solving this problem.

“Equally, it aims to ensure that government agencies will actually use their powers of enforcement. Four hundred thousand discharges of raw sewage from storm overflows in 2020 give clear evidence that this isn’t the case currently.”

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