The creation of the first designated bathing water spot in a UK river has moved one step closer after the government published a consultation on the plans.
A stretch of the River Wharfe in Ilkley, which is popular with swimmers and families, would be the only river in the country to be subjected to strict monitoring during May to October to ensure the water is of good quality.
Local people and businesses overwhelmingly voted for the bathing water status during a campaign run by Ilkley Clean River Group before they submitted the application to the government.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on Friday put the idea out to an eight-week consultation.
Campaigners want the status to be created to ensure the water is subjected to more rigorous testing and to stop the river being used to discharge sewage from overflows when it rains. There are no rivers with designated bathing water status in Britain, unlike countries such as France, where there are 573.
“Local people and agencies all support the application and have worked hard to prove how much we need it, so we anticipate a positive outcome,” said Becky Malby, of the clean river campaign. “People living in Ilkley expect our sewage to be treated, not dumped straight into the river every time it rains. We were shocked to find that our river was being used as an open sewer. We have stories of children getting sick as a result of dipping in the river. This is a disgrace. Bathing status is a critical step in cleaning up our river.”
The Guardian revealed last month that raw sewage was discharged by water companies into rivers via storm overflows for 1.5m hours in 2019. River campaigners are pressing for bathing water status to be rolled out in popular river bathing areas to force water companies to stop the discharges.
If the River Wharfe is granted bathing water status it will be monitored along the lines of coastal waters, which are given designation as excellent, good, satisfactory or poor. Campaigners hope it will lead to other rivers gaining the designation, forcing water companies, the Environment Agency and the government to invest in solutions to stop the discharges into rivers.
The chair of the Environment Agency, Emma Howard Boyd, told the Guardian that if people wanted bathing water designations for rivers it would be a “game changer” that would require more government funding.
Defra said if successful, it would mean a part of the river flowing through Ilkley would be monitored regularly during the bathing season (15 May to 30 September) for bacteria detrimental to human health.
Environment minister Rebecca Pow said: “We protect people’s health at popular swimming spots across the country by requiring the water quality at those sites to be regularly monitored. At present, 93% of bathing waters in England have ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ water quality.
“I encourage local residents to take part in this consultation so we can have as many views as possible to inform our final decision.”
The area of the River Wharfe under consideration runs between Ilkley Main Bridge and Beanlands Island.