Part of Yorkshire's River Wharfe becomes first in the country to be designated 'bathing water'

A Yorkshire river has become the first in the country to be given special 'bathing' status, meaning the water will be regularly tested to ensure it is clean and safe enough for swimmers.

The Government announced that part of the River Wharfe in Ilkley will be added to the list of bathing waters in England from 2021.

It comes after a two-month consultation over whether the status should be given to the stretch of river between Ilkley Main Bridge and Beanlands Island, which is a popular swimming and paddling spot for locals and visitors.

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In total there were 1,073 replies, the largest response to date for a proposed bathing water designation, with 998 in favour. It means the Environment Agency will regularly take samples from the river to assess whether action is needed to cut bacteria levels, helping to ensure the water is cleaner and safer for swimmers. Monitoring will begin from next May.

There are currently 12 inland bathing waters in England, all on lakes, meaning this would be the first river to get the status. Any surface water can be designated as a bathing water if it is used by a large number of people and meets the requirements for designation

It comes as Yorkshire Water confirmed a new partnership to improve water quality in the River Wharfe, bringing together the Environment Agency, Bradford Council, NFU, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and landowners upstream of Ilkley.

It has also set out plans to reduce storm overflow discharges of sewage into the river by 20 per cent by cutting the amount of water that gets into the sewer network from the nearby moorland.

The River Wharfe in Ilkley. A stretch of river is the first in England to secure inland bathing status, a major milestone in a long running campaign over this landmark beauty spot which is used by thousands of visitors to paddle and picnic every year. Pic: Bruce Rollinson

And a ‘smart networks’ pilot is planned for the sewer system in Ilkley, which would see Yorkshire Water installing advanced monitoring technology to measure flows and water quality to help manage the network.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “The residents of Ilkley and the surrounding area have shown their overwhelming appreciation for the River Wharfe as an asset to enjoy and protect.

"I am delighted that this stretch of river will be the first river to host a designated bathing water site.

“Unfortunately, we all know that water quality won’t change overnight. It will take time and we need farmers and businesses to commit to achieve the necessary improvements. I am pleased to see Yorkshire Water stepping forward with new proposals today to help move things in the right direction.”

The Ilkley Clean River campaign group described the move as "a significant environmental landmark as a step towards cleaning up the river so that it is fit for people and wildlife".

But it said a 20 per cent cut in storm overflows would only cut the number of days raw sewage is spilling into the river from 114 to 91 in the year.

Members said in a statement: "This would also mean that the river is unlikely to pass bathing quality requirements in the short term (ie the quality of water safe to paddle play or swim in), so we also look forward to hearing the longer term plan for a radical reduction in storm overflows."