Bathing water designation for local swim spots? 

08th February, 2021

On 7 February 2020 the Environment Agency told The Guardian that they welcomed river users applying for Bathing Water Quality status for swim spots. Imogen Radford from the OSS Inland Access Group provides a briefing for swimmers on the pros and cons and practicalities

At first sight the call for swimmers to seek Bathing Water Quality designation seems like a no brainer. It would be hard to find a swimmer who wouldn’t answer “Yes” to the question “Do you want to swim in clean water?” Some local groups concerned about their rivers are already doing or considering this – Warleigh Weir Project, End Sewage Pollution Oxford, and Ilkley Clean River Group have done so already – but there are pros and cons, pragmatic and philosophical, to consider before setting up a local campaign.

THE SITUATION NOW

Only one river in the UK is designated under the bathing water directive, unlike hundreds of coastal spots and a few lakes. This legislation has done a lot to clean up beaches. If a place is designated it must be regularly monitored over the summer, with reports and warnings if the water contains levels of bacteria so high as to make bathing unsafe.

On 22 December 2020 part of the river Wharfe at Ilkley became the first designated bathing site river in the UK, with water quality monitoring to begin in May 2021.

A couple more groups in England are applying or considering applying for bathing water status for their stretch of river. The chair of the Environment Agency has welcomed increased public interest as it could boost efforts to improve water quality, though stressed that this will need funding to enable proper monitoring of the water and improved quality.

Why is there a push to do this? The focus on swimmers is partly political – a number of environmental groups are turning to swimmers now to try to get their message across. Not because swimmers are particularly at risk – compared to plants, wildlife or other water users like canoeists and SUPers – but because swimmers may unlock funding for them to achieve their aims, and because swimming is currently popular so they can lever that popularity to encourage people to care about their environmental priorities. 

And swimmers care about their environment – they are often immersed in it, after all – and get involved in all sorts of campaigns.

Should swimmers be leaping into action to campaign for local swim spots to be designated as bathing water places?

PROS 

More designated places could increase pressure to improve bathing water quality, ideally leading to:  

  • more monitoring of discharges from sewage works, and reducing or stopping untreated outflows
  • more funding and support for Environment Agency and equivalent agencies in other UK nations 
  • water companies prioritising investment in improving infrastructure over profit and shareholder dividends
  • the water regulator to push for this rather than reducing water rates
  • more actions to deal with wider problems which are overpowering our antiquated infrastructure, and more awareness of individual actions that can help

Using this important EU legislation now will raise awareness of its value as post Brexit moves could challenge or water down these protections.

Good campaigns in which everyone works together – swimmers and other river users, conservationists, authorities, water companies and those monitoring the water, landowners and farmers, local politicians and the local community – could lead to understanding each other better and achieving our common aims. 

Campaigns could lead to more people getting involved in valuing and caring for their rivers and environment, and a focus on swimmers could put them centre stage in access to rivers. 

Bathing Water Quality status would help guide swimmers with good relevant information in the summer months on the cleanliness of water in designated spots. (Though generally most swimmers can look at the water and can assess instinctively if it is clean enough to swim or dip in. Is It Clean? gives some tips: avoid inner city water, places with litter or debris, murky water or scum, or that smell bad. And avoid swimming after heavy rain, particularly downstream of water treatment works that could discharge sewage – which are mapped by the Rivers Trust – and of grazing cattle or other pollution sources).

CONS

Campaigns to designate bathing spots could

  • buy in to the narrative as seen in media articles with often misleading claims that ‘No River Is Fit to Swim In’, which are questioned in this post
  • give the impression that the river in question, and rivers generally, are always unsafe to swim, whether or not there is evidence or that evidence applies to all conditions
  • make swimmers lose confidence to swim in many places when often they’re okay
  • drive swimmers out of the river, making a bid less likely to be successful and risking losing access at that spot if it is less used
  • strengthen the actions of any authorities or landowners or others wanting to stop people swimming at that spot
  • lead to a backlash against swimmers, with concerns about increased numbers, crowding, impact on wildlife and the local community
  • potentially make opposition by environmentalists and nature conservation organisations more likely, particularly during the growth and nesting seasons
  • could lead to or magnify conflict and tension between different users of an area of river, if designation and surrounding publicity or actions increases the numbers or balance of users
  • make negotiation with the landowner more difficult – they might be put off if a place needs to go through bathing water designation procedures, when they might have been quite happy to agree to low-key swimming access
  • lead to unrealistic expectations of swimmers, who might think they can only swim if the water quality is ‘excellent’, when they could make their own decision to swim when it was ‘sufficient’ or even ‘poor’
  • mean losing the pragmatic approach (of Is It Clean), and making people less likely to take responsibility to judge for themselves, and instead wait for approval from the authorities to tell them that the water at a particular place is clean.

Some potential cons once bathing water is designated:

  • swimmers could think the water is guaranteed good quality in designated places (and not good quality in non-designated places)
  • swimmers could make assumptions about the place being safe because it is designated, rather than making assessments of any risks
  • unrealistic expectations about the speed of improvements in bathing water quality
  • unintended consequences arising from the financial issues, including either a rise in sewerage bills, or if these bills are not allowed to rise investment could be prioritised to bathing waters in preference to non- designated waters.

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR GROUPS CONSIDERING APPLYING FOR STATUS

  • Consider whether there is a problem and whether it is necessary or the best way
  • Have you got the necessary number of users? To achieve the status there need to be considerable numbers of bathers, for example in Ilkley they had nearly 8000 over the 20 busiest days, and that was only just enough for their bid to succeed.
  • Consider strategy and aims, and how a campaign would benefit swimmers
  • Focus on swimming (and other splashing about), rather than more broadly on the environment
  • Have a clear focus and a plan for a long-term campaign
  • Consider timing. It is likely that a campaign would be at least a year of work, focusing particularly on the summer bathing water season, starting 15  May, when numbers need to be counted to include in an application. Applications are submitted in October.
  • Consider whether the place is suitable, and whether there is local support
  • Be aware of the work involved in campaigning for bathing water status, including surveys of swimmers across the summer, having numerous discussions, and drawing up documents
  • Ensure campaign members have or can gain skills, and that they have the time and can make a long-term commitment, and have the resiliance for what can be a testing process
  • Check whether it’s possible to provide the necessary range of evidence, including on the number of swimmers in the summer, on facilities and other infrastructure
  • Ensure your publicity and campaign messages are balanced, clearly explaining the issue to get support while avoiding exaggerations that can drive people out of the river and sometimes unnecessarily put people off swimming
  • It is essential to get the support of the landowner, the local authority, local people, other water users and others who might be affected
  • Make sure river swimmers are involved
  • Get the support of local MPs, other politicians and other key members of the community
  • Involve parents and young people
  • Involve wildlife/environment campaigners, but be clear about aims and understand the different measures, standards and actions to improve river water quality
  • Work with other river users, anglers, paddlers, boaters 
  • Work with Environment Agency or equivalents in other UK nations, water companies and other authorities, avoid attacking them by concentrating on resources and funding issues and the legislative framework
  • Find out who might be hostile to such a bid and consider how to engage them or deal with that.

FURTHER INFORMATION

The OSS has two social media platforms where social swim groups and those looking into status for their areas may meet others to discuss.

  • The ‘Inland Access Group – Outdoor Swimming Society’ is a private group on Facebook for people looking at setting up free inland beaches in their area or at protecting existing access. See also The OSS Guide to Inland Bathing Waters, which contains legal and practical information on establishing free swimming in the UK
  • The ‘Network for Admins of Outdoor Swim Groups – Outdoor Swimming Society’ is a private group on Facebook,  a place where those who moderate social swim groups can share advice and experiences
  • Is it Clean?’, in our Survive section, is all most swimmers need to know before deciding whether to get in

Designated Bathing Waters explained – what they are and why they matter

Campaigning groups:

Designation application procedures:

The trade association for water companies is Water UK.

February 2020, updated February 2021