Sewage-spill SOS: bathers bid to reclaim the River Wharfe

Residents of one Yorkshire town are fighting to designate the River Wharfe as bathing water, subject to far more rigorous monitoring and quality standards, to stop sewage flowing into it, rain or shine. Karen Thomas reports from Ilkley

IT’S THE DUCKS that signal new trouble for the River Wharfe. “We always know when it’s going to rain,” Karen Shackleton says. “All the ducks start to gather at the outflows, waiting for the sewage to start to pour.”

On a bright winter afternoon, Ilkley is ruggedly beautiful, nestling in low sunlight beneath the moors. Catkins swing and daffodils nod in the breeze. We walk through the cemetery to the river bank. Sure enough, two mallards are feeding under the pipe that carries outflow from Ilkley’s sewage-treatment works.

Local angler Steve Fairbourn shakes his head and sighs. “See how it’s flowing again today,” he says. “And it’s not rained today in Ilkley. It’s not rained in a week.”

But for a sludgy tangle of sewage fungus at the outflow, the River Wharfe looks as clear and inviting as gin. Generations of Wharfedale children have swum and paddled in it on hot summer days. But looks are deceptive. Some fifty combined sewer outfalls (CSOs) discharge into the Wharfe. Campaigners say the pollution levels are now impossible to ignore.

Paddling in the Wharfe is one of Shackleton’s happiest childhood memories. Ilkley born and bred, she spends much of her time on the river, as a member of Wharfedale Naturalists Society and as a dog walker. Two years ago, she started to notice sanitary pads and other solid waste floating down the river and washing up along the banks.

She mentioned this to Fairbourn, who had noticed too. Members of Ilkley Anglers Association were reeling in condoms, wet wipes and other bathroom waste. Having tracked the problem to CSOs discharging raw waste from the local sewage-treatment works, Fairbourn complained to both the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water. His complaints led nowhere.


The Environment Agency permits water firms to discharge waste into rivers during storms. Doing this eases pressure on the sewers, reducing the risk of waste backing up, flooding homes and communities. But Ilkley residents say untreated sewage is entering the river, rain or shine.

Things came to a head two summers ago, when Shackleton spotted sewage pouring into the river on a hot, arid day. “It was gushing right across, even though the river was low – it hadn’t rained,” she recalls. “And there were children in the water, paddling away happily, blissfully unaware of what they were bathing in.”

She sent photos to the local newspapers and radio station. The reports sparked an outcry. People reported children struck down with gastroenteritis after bathing, pet dogs falling sick after fetching sticks from the Wharfe. Public outrage pushed the local authority to test the water.

Inspired by a Countryfile report about Oxfordshire river group, Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP), Shackleton and Fairbourn called a town meeting. A hundred friends and neighbours formed Ilkley Clean Rivers Group to press Yorkshire Water and the Environment Agency to meet and enforce far higher water-quality standards.

That summer, 50 volunteers monitored the discharges and counted how many people were bathing in the river and where. On one July day, they counted 1,750 people swimming and paddling.

The samples gathered by Shackleton, Fairbourn and their friends confirmed pollution well above permitted levels. “People were horrified to learn that sewage pours into their river pretty much every time it rains,” Shackleton says. “We measured the treated outflow at 40,000 cfu/100 ml. And that’s the treated water. Further downstream, the water pouring out of the outflows contains far higher levels of contaminants.”


Just 14 per cent of UK rivers have attained ‘good’ status under the EU Water Framework Directive. The UK missed its target to improve all rivers to good ecological status by 2015. The Wharfe’s water quality is “moderate” in WFD terms, reflecting its high levels of macrophytes and other pollutants.

Initially, the group wanted Yorkshire Water to stop activating the storm drains during brief showers and to improve screening to hold sanitary waste back from the river. Now, it has applied to Defra to designate the Wharfe a bathing-water area.

Bathing waters require far tougher water-quality monitoring and standards. Attaining this would be a UK first. None of our rivers are designated bathing waters, even though rivers and lakes make up a third of European Union designated bathing waters. “If we win, the authorities will have to clean up the water and improve how they manage it,” Shackleton explains.

One reason UK rivers are so polluted is the amount of untreated waste pouring into them from 15,700 combined sewerage outflows. A WWF study found outflows discharging sewage into our rivers far more often than permitted – not just during heavy rain. This summer, freedom of information requests by The Guardian highlighted the shocking scale of sewage spills into UK rivers.

Local river groups around the country are trying to tackle the problem. But water firms hold discharge permits – and monitor their own discharge rates. They don’t have to publish real-time data to show how often and how much sewage they release, or for how long. Critics say the permit system gives water firms a licence to pollute.

“The case of Ilkley illustrates a growing problem with CSO discharges – but a big part of the responsibility here is central government policies and targets on development without adequate investment in infrastructure – such as high-quality SuDS – to cope with it,” says CIWEM policy director Alastair Chisholm.

“There was a lot of pressure in the last water company business planning round to reduce customer bills and at some point there will be a trade-off between this and investing in the environment.”

The Ilkley campaigners turned to Rick Battarbee, director of the Environmental Change Research Centre at University College London to analyse the pollution patterns. Battarbee recorded 136 spills from Ilkley’s Ashlands sewage-treatment works on 77 days last year, up from 43 in 2018. “The Environment Agency allows 40 spills a year before an investigation is triggered,” he notes.

“We have looked at the data supplied by Yorkshire Water’s telemetry that indicates that the sensor on the storm discharge has been triggered on a number of occasions, signalling events lasting from seconds to days,” says Environment Agency area environment manager Martin Christmas.

Having carried out ecological and chemical investigations downstream from the outfall, he says the agency found little or no impact on fish and invertebrates although algae had responded to raised nutrient levels, phosphorous in particular.

“We haven’t had fewer than 40 spills in any year for the last ten,” Shackleton counters. “If you have more than 70 spills you should be due an upgrade. But this has gone on for years. The standards the Environment Agency sets the water companies simply aren’t high enough. The water companies are profit-based companies: they will only do what they’re asked to do.”

The European Union Urban Waste Waters Directive regulates how many spills are permitted after heavy rainfall. “Exactly what constitutes unusually heavy rainfall is not clear,” Battarbee says. “Is it one or two a year; Storm Ciara, Storm Dennis?”

Yorkshire Water attributes the pollution to water infiltrating the sewers from becks on the moors. Battarbee says his tests ruled that out, tracing the pollutants to the river’s sewage outflows. He found that Ashlands discharges sewage into the Wharfe year round, in all weathers.

Capacity is under strain, Battarbee says. The Victorian sewers, built to process Ilkley waste, now treat flows from Addingham too. Pressure on the system can only intensify, as climate change brings more frequent bursts of heavy rain. The number of extremely wet days has increased 17 per cent over the last three decades, Battarbee says.


Attaining Blue Flag status for stretches of the Wharfe would force the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water to clean up the river. For inland bathing waters, the EU quality standard deems 900 units of colony-forming units (cfu) per 100 ml to be sufficient – not good; not excellent.

Ilkley Clean Rivers Group expected Defra to give the go-ahead by May. To its frustration, lockdown has pushed back the decision. On May 13 Defra secretary Rebecca Pow wrote to say “it is unfortunate that this process has taken longer than we would have liked… This is not due to any lack of enthusiasm for the application from Defra”.

The group continues to press Defra to open consultations on cleaning and monitoring the river to bathing-quality standard. Already, it has pushed river-water quality up the political agenda, across Yorkshire and beyond.

It is working with groups downstream, in Weatherby and Ottley, and has pushed the city authorities in Leeds and Bradford to monitor sewage levels in the rivers. It is educating local people about what they can and can’t flush and about how SuDS-based solutions can divert rainwater from the sewers, and has persuaded the local ironmonger to offer rain butts on discount.

This summer, the group will test water quality the length of the river. The People’s Oughtershaw to Ouze Project (POOP) aims to send out dozens of volunteers during bathing season to test the entire river. That is still the plan, lockdown permitting. POOP hopes to raise at least £5,000 to pay for the lab tests, landing an initial £2,000 from outdoor clothing brand Patagonia.

Shackleton hopes other river groups apply for bathing-water status to tackle the dire state of our rivers. In Oxfordshire, WASP has lodged its own bid for Blue Flag status along River Windrush.

“Last winter we endured well over four months of virtually constant untreated sewage spills causing extensive sewage fungus, due to groundwater infiltration of the sewers,” says WASP founder Ashley Smith. “This is illegal according to the Environment Agency and its documentation but we have had to drag that out of them.”

Smith says the agency’s prosecution policies are “flaky”. “The public has been misled and it is only now that groups like us are starting to show people what really happens to their waste; it is often little more than the aquatic version of fly-tipping,” he says.

He fears the Covid-19 delays are strategic. “I suspect Defra will try to refuse or keep putting off the bathing-water applications to avoid opening the floodgates on a sewage system that is a disgrace in the developed world.

“Untreated spills are common and, we believe, often illegal and certainly under-reported. It is vital that we keep people engaged with their environment and valuing it as an asset, so we encourage letting people know what is happening and making their own decisions and managing risks.

“We have been trying to get Thames Water to tell us whether they spill untreated sewage right now due to the unknown risk from Covid-19 but also the known risks from bacteria and chemicals. The idea that the polluter pays is a great one and – if properly applied to the water industry – it would have solved most of the problems that face us today.”

Christmas says the Environment Agency is tackling river pollution, including securing new investment from Yorkshire Water to cut pollution and protect water quality.

“We recognise that more needs to be done to continue to improve water quality and achieve the ambitions of the government’s 25-year environment plan,” he says. “We are working on a range of partnership projects to do this, but individual actions count too.”

Nevertheless, a small Yorkshire river group may yet set a precedent. “We certainly hope so,” Shackleton concludes. “We’re determined to make the Wharfe the first river in the country designated as bathing water.

“It shouldn’t be down to the public to force water companies to do the right thing. It should be down to the regulator. We need tougher regulation and higher standards. Things need to change now. I’d love every river in the country to be granted bathing-water status.”

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