Wetherby Leeds: New bathing site considered at River Wharfe as campaigners hit out over 'raw sewage' dangers

A new bathing site is being considered at a river in Leeds – and, if signed off, swimmers can expect regular water quality checks.
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Wetherby Riverside, along the River Wharfe, is among 27 spots in England being put forward by the government to become designated bathing sites.

Wild swimmers are often seen enjoying a dip in the cool water, near to the Wilderness Car Park, when the sun is shining.

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James HardistyJames Hardisty
James Hardisty

But the dangers that lurk within the watercourse should not be underestimated, according to campaigners. They said that sewage spills into the River Wharfe make it unsafe to swim in.

Nonetheless, some have welcomed the announcement that the site is being considered, because it would mean that the Environment Agency would be obliged to carry out regular water monitoring along the stretch.

However, there are still concerns that this would result in little action on pollution.

Green Party Coun Penny Stables has represented Wetherby at Leeds City Council since last year.

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She said: “I’ve been absolutely against anyone going in the river, because we’re aware of how polluted it is. It’s just not safe.”

Sewage spills and discharges into watercourses mean that they can carry dangerous bacteria, such as E coli and intestinal enterococci, that can make swimmers ill.

In 2021, volunteers from ‘iWharfe’, a citizen science project, said that they found “unusually high” E coli concentrations in water samples collected along the River Wharfe immediately upstream from Ilkley.

Water companies are allowed to release untreated sewage into rivers at times of exceptional rainfall when the system becomes overwhelmed.

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Volunteers said that "unusually high" levels of E coli have previously been found in samples taken from the watercourse. Photo: teamjackson - stock.adobe.com.Volunteers said that "unusually high" levels of E coli have previously been found in samples taken from the watercourse. Photo: teamjackson - stock.adobe.com.
Volunteers said that "unusually high" levels of E coli have previously been found in samples taken from the watercourse. Photo: teamjackson - stock.adobe.com.

Coun Stables continued: “The bathing site status would help to put pressure on water companies to clean up the river, although sadly, the Environment Agency struggles to act because the government has reduced its funding.

“I welcome the fact that this has been proposed, but I am concerned about whether it will lead to any action. They might test the water, but then what happens?”

She added: “It really is appalling that our rivers are so polluted. There are videos showing raw sewage pouring into the River Wharfe – if you saw them, there’s no way you’d get in.”

The government has launched a consultation on the proposed bathing sites, which ends on March 10.

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Robbie Moore, the Minister for Water and Rural Growth, said: “Many people enjoy spending time in our rivers, lakes, and coastal beaches, and I am very aware of the value they bring in terms of social, health and wellbeing benefits.

“I want to continue to improve the quality of our bathing waters, which is why we are taking action across the board to drive up standards and hold water companies to account.

“I encourage all local communities and organisations with an interest to take part in this consultation and have their say.”

When selecting new sites, Defra must consider how many people bathe there and whether the site has suitable facilities, like toilets.

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The plans for Wetherby Riverside come three years after a nearby spot became the first designated river bathing site in England. That is at nearby Cromwheel, in Ilkley, along the same river.

Only three rivers in England currently have stretches designated for swimming – and all received a “poor” water quality rating from the Environment Agency last year.

A Yorkshire Water spokesperson said: “We’re supportive of more bathing waters in our region and have met with several local groups in relation to bathing water applications in recent years. We're keen to play our part in the process and are already investing in our network on the Nidd and the Wharfe to improve water quality in both watercourses."

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: "Overall, regulation and investment over several decades have driven significant improvements to our bathing waters, however there is much more to do and we are committed to improving water quality in England.

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“Cleaning up England’s waters isn’t just about water companies – it includes agriculture, industry, and urban pollution, too. We know there is more to do to improve designated bathing sites and our waterways, which is why we will work with everyone - from farmers or water companies through to citizen scientists – to reduce pollution.

“It’s important people remember to report pollution to our incident hotline, open 24/7, on 0800 80 70 60 so we can investigate.”

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