‘People were paddling among human waste’: the local campaign that sparked a battle against UK river pollution

When Ilkley locals spotted sewage running into the River Wharfe, they assumed an error had been made. Instead they discovered a shocking reality: that raw sewage is dumped into Britain’s rivers hundreds of times a year.

The River Wharfe is popular with tourists and locals alike during the high season - but certain areas are dangerously polluted.
The River Wharfe is popular with tourists and locals alike during the high season - but certain areas are dangerously polluted.

As a nation starved of sunshine, determinedly paddling in icy waters on a day just shy of 15 degrees celsius is a well-established British right of passage.

On any vaguely warm day of the year, throngs of picnickers and paddlers will descend on beauty spots across the UK in defiance of cloudy forecasts, usually hopeful of a dip in the nearest body of water.

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Ilkley, West Yorkshire, is one such favourite spot for summer day-trippers. Bustling with independent shops and home to a picturesque stretch of the River Wharfe, the summer months see visitors descend in their thousands on the town for a mooch, some lunch and a paddle to cool off afterwards.

While this annual ritual was taking place several years ago, however, Ilkley locals passing by the river spotted something alarming: sitting on the banks, just upstream of swimmers, was solid human waste. Those downstream, they realised, were unknowingly bathing in raw sewage.

The incident proved no one-off. In the subsequent months, locals spotted repeated evidence of sewage spills on the banks of the river. In spite of reporting the incidents to the Environment Agency however, the sewage kept appearing.

“We kept reporting and were told ‘there’s no point reporting it, it’s legal’,” explains Professor Becky Malby, of the Ilkley Clean River Campaign. “We couldn’t believe what we were hearing.”

In England, the discharge of raw sewage (including condoms, excrement and toilet paper) is only theoretically permitted following “extreme” weather conditions as a measure to prevent backed-up water flooding homes.

A lack of monitoring on sewage

More than 60 discharges a year should trigger an investigation, yet with the Environment Agency relying on water companies to self-monitor their Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs), and rivers - unlike seasides - lacking the ‘bathing status’ that mandates regular testing, sewage discharges had been occurring with alarming frequency, says Prof Malby.

“Because they hadn’t been asked, Yorkshire Water hadn’t said [about the discharges]. And because there wasn’t even monitoring on the sewage outflow, they weren’t obliged to say anything.

“Meanwhile, the Environment Agency hadn’t asked Yorkshire Water about the discharges because they didn’t think there was a problem,” she adds.

With no data available on the spills, and a seeming lack of interest from the relevant bodies, Ilkley locals decided to take matters into their own hands.

Officially forming the Ilkley Clean River campaign in 2018, the group were able to test the water themselves the following year thanks to funding granted by the town council, with the Environment Agency allowing use of their labs for analysis.

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‘People were paddling among human waste’

The testing revealed that raw sewage was being dumped into the river over the equivalent of 114 days annually: around a third of the year. A counting exercise by the group, meanwhile, revealed that up to 1,000 people were using the river in Ilkley for leisure on a hot sunny day.

“People were picnicking, paddling and playing among human waste,” says Prof Malby. “It’s a public health disaster.”

Up and down the country, as it turns out, the same scenario had been quietly unfolding. Not long after Ilkley tested their own river, a Guardian investigation revealed that water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers across England 200,000 times in 2019.

A 2020 study examining the make-up of these spills assessed the quantity of E coli (found in human feces) coming out of CSOs as between 1,000 and 10,000 times higher than that coming from treated sewage from wastewater treatment plants. Water companies commented at the time of the Guardian investigation that E coli concentrations are diluted to safe levels by wastewater and rain.

Ikley’s citizen science testing would reveal evidence to the contrary, however. Sections of the river were found to have concentrations of E coli at 2000 cfu/ml; far exceeding the 900 cfus per 100mls required for the Environment Agency to designate bathing water as at least ‘sufficient’.

The evidence of unacceptable pollution levels in the water was clear, says Prof Malby, yet demands for further monitoring went unheeded:

“They [the Environment Agency] said they didn’t have the resources, and didn’t test for E coli anyway. We managed to get a test once a month for environmental factors but that was it,” she explains.

‘It’s a moral issue’

The reluctance forced the group to change tack, deciding, in a first for the UK, to apply for bathing status for the river. Achieving the status would mandate regular testing and monitoring, with a formal designation on water quality awarded.

Though safer swimming formed a large part of the campaign, says Prof Malby, at its heart was a more fundamental outrage at the lack of transparency from bodies like Yorkshire Water, Ofwat and the Environment Agency:

“It’s not so much swimming that we’re interested in, though we want people to be able to make informed choices…for me personally it’s a moral issue, it’s about how local people are being treated, how the environment is being damaged.

“We all think we’re paying for our water to be treated and it turns out it’s not. What are we paying for?”

After a year of back-and-forth, meeting what Prof Malby describes as a “reluctance from agencies to be properly accountable for what they're doing”, Ilkley were officially awarded bathing status in December 2020.

Ilkley’s nationwide impact

The town’s success was celebrated not just by locals but campaigners across the country, who saw a fresh opportunity in using bathing status to force a clean-up of Britain’s rivers.

“It’s hard to cope with the individual enquiries we get now,” says Prof Malby, who describes an explosion in the number of campaigners reaching out to Ilkley Clean River volunteers for advice.

As a result, the group now offers free advice, seminars and guidance on testing river water, applying for bathing status and how to run a successful campaign.

Yet while Ilkley has moved one step closer to a clean-up, there’s work to be done yet says Prof Malby, who remains concerned over the pace of change in the industry.

“You can report something that’s illegal, and as long as they fix it within five years, that’s apparently acceptable.”

She adds, too, that the group “haven’t yet seen a plan” for how regulators and water bodies will clean up the river and cut down on spills. Her current fear, she adds, is that the costs of fixing the infrastructure may yet be deemed unacceptably high for the public purse.

The group nonetheless continue to push for the clean-up they’ve long demanded - and hope their success will spark a sea change for rivers up and down the UK.

“We want our storm overflow to only be discharging in extreme weather conditions, we want compliance with the legislation that will keep our river clean,” she says.

“We need a plan that’s going to get us there - and we’ll carry on until we see that plan.”

A Yorkshire Water spokesperson said: “The health of our rivers is an issue that has really captured the attention of the public recently and that is testament to the work of Professor Malby and the Ilkley Clean River Group. Not only have they achieved bathing water status in Ilkley, they have brought the issue to the attention of government, and we’re keen to play our part in what we want the Wharfe and other rivers to be like in future.

“For the Wharfe in particular, we and other stakeholders in the region have formed a partnership with the aim of delivering improvements. This will not be a short-term fix and will require significant investment as well as multiple agencies working together closely to play their part in achieving our aims for the Wharfe.