Oxford has submitted an application to DEFRA to grant Bathing Water status at two popular wild water swimming spots in Oxford – Wolvercote stream, and Fiddlers Island near Port Meadow.
The application means that the city could host the UK’s second and third Bathing Water sites, following in the direction of Ilkley in West Yorkshire – which was awarded Bathing Water status in December 2020.
The application has been submitted by Oxford City Council on behalf of the Oxford Rivers Project – a programme jointly funded by Thames21, Thames Water, Oxford City Council, and the Rivers Trust – which was set up at the beginning of 2021.
The project has supported hundreds of volunteers across the city to collect data on water quality and different river user groups to support the application.
In October 2020, Oxford City Council unanimously supported a motion to apply for Bathing Water status in the city, and a petition saw 5000 signatures from residents.
Bathing Water standards are based on World Health Organisation research into the incidence of stomach upsets in people bathing in waters with different levels of bacteria.
Water is tested for two types of bacteria, E. coli and intestinal enterococci. These bacteria usually get into water from sewage and animal manure.
Only 14% of rivers in England are classed as ecologically healthy by the Environment Agency, and sewage pollution is one of the major causes.
What happens when a site is granted Bathing Water status?
Once a site is designated as a Bathing Water site, the Environment Agency has a duty to test the water regularly, and the landowner, in this case, Oxford City Council, must display signage displaying the water quality – classified from Excellent to Poor.
The allocation of a Bathing Water site aims to protect public health and means that bacteria levels at the site must be at least ‘sufficient’ status during the summer months (May – September).
It is the responsibility of the local water company, and the landowner to improve or maintain the status of a Bathing Water site.
The status of the site is reviewed annually, and if an improvement is not made within five years, the site will be de-designated.
If a site is allocated as ‘poor’ then an ‘advice against bathing’ symbol must be put up, alongside information about the sources of pollution and the action that is being taken to clean it up.
A sign displaying a “poor” classification and advice against bathing does not mean that bathing is banned, or that the river is closed, however, bathing at the site is not advised.
The application has been informed by eight months of water quality monitoring by the Citizen scientist volunteers at the Oxford Rivers Project.
The volunteers collected water samples over 18 days in 2021 from Port Meadow and two other popular Oxford swimming spots (Longbridges and Kennington Meadows).
Their research found that in relatively dry months (March, April, July, and August) levels of harmful bacteria were low enough for the water quality to be considered ‘good’ or even ‘excellent’.
However, in months with heavier rainfall (January, February, May, and June) bacteria levels were on average twice the recommended safety threshold – and were considered ‘poor’ -, meaning there were enough bacteria to cause illness in anyone coming into contact with the water.
The main source of this bacteria was found to be treated and untreated sewage entering the river.
Earlier this year, in support of the bathing water application, Thames Water introduced a new manual alert system on the River Thames. Members of the public can sign up to email alerts when sewage has been released due to heavy rainfall, or view them on the Safer Seas and Rivers app.
There will be a national consultation on the site in the coming months, and a decision is expected to be made in early 2022.
“Oxford’s rivers are well-loved, especially during the summer. We want to ensure that our rivers are clean and unpolluted in order to help protect the health of Oxford’s swimmers, rowers, and anyone else who wants to enjoy them.
“Over the past few months we have been working with our partner organisations to gather data to help support our Bathing Water application. I want to thank everyone for their hard work, which has been crucial to submitting this application. We look forward to hearing from the Government about the result of our application.”
—Councillor Mary Clarkson, Cabinet Member for Culture, Leisure and Tourism, Oxford City Council
“We’re over the moon to have this application finally submitted. I want to thank the City Council, the Rivers Trust, Thames21 and Thames Water for supporting the project, but especially our amazing volunteers: we wouldn’t have got here without them going out in all weathers to collect river water samples and count people on Port Meadow.
“People in Oxford really love their river, and want to see it clean and healthy for people and wildlife, and free of sewage and other forms of pollution. Hopefully, Oxford will be the second of hundreds more clean river swimming spots in the country.”
—Claire Robertson, Oxford Rivers Project Officer
“We fully support this application for bathing water status at two popular swimming spots in Oxford. Our aim will always be to try and do the right thing for our rivers and for the communities who love and value them.
“We’re pleased to be working with local partners in the Oxford Rivers Project to provide evidence for the application and are actively listening to our customers, who have clearly told us to do more to protect these incredible environments.
“We’re planning major expansions of a number of our sewage treatment works in the area, including at Witney and Oxford, as well as improvements to the sewer network, and are determined to improve the current health of the rivers in our area.”
—Richard Aylard, Sustainability Director, Thames Water