The Wharfe in Ilkley could become the first river in the country to be designated for clean water swimming

The pebble beaches beside the River Wharfe at IlkleyThe pebble beaches beside the River Wharfe at Ilkley
The pebble beaches beside the River Wharfe at Ilkley
Campaigners are fighting to get a popular stretch of the River Wharfe in the Yorkshire Dales recognised as a bathing spot so they can improve water quality.

If the government grants the Wharfe at Ilkley official designation as being suitable for swimming, it would mean the Environment Agency would have to regularly test the water for the presence of harmful bacteria such as E.coli.

Currently, there are no rivers in the UK with the status, which is usually awarded to beaches and lakes.

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Hero Leeds dad saves small boys from drowning in the River Wharfe during heatwave swimThe river attracts large crowds of swimmers during the summer, but campaigners from the Ilkley Clean River Group claims it suffers from pollution emanating from an upstream Yorkshire Water treatment facility.

The beaches are hugely popular in summerThe beaches are hugely popular in summer
The beaches are hugely popular in summer

The group believe that bacteria levels rise when rainfall overwhelms the sewage pumping station's storm tanks, causing untreated effluent to enter the river. These discharges are legal in order to prevent leakages into people's homes, and are often permitted by the Environment Agency.

Bradford Council have backed the group's submitted application to DEFRA for official bathing designation. If granted, the Environment Agency would be required to conduct weekly testing during summer and issue pollution risk forecasts, as well as investigating the source of any pollution detected and taking enforcement action.

The campaigners must convince DEFRA that there is high demand for swimming. Last summer, Ilkley Clean River Group monitored activity at the site and found that on several hot days, more than 1,000 people entered the water.

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They want a 300-metre stretch from Ilkley Old Bridge to Beanlands Island to be covered by the protection.

Their grassroots activism has uncovered 'regular and routine' sewage dumping in the Wharfe by Yorkshire Water with the Environment Agency's consent. Several members of the group are retired scientists who conducted 'citizen testing' themselves.

Between April and December 2019, there were 136 instances when sewage was discharged into the river.

The campaigners have argued that the poor water quality could also impact upon fish and other species living in the Wharfe.

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Ilkley resident and campaigner Professor Rebecca Malby believes the group have uncovered a 'national scandal' and exposed the poor maintenance of outdated sewage systems.

"We first started noticing the discharges from the storm overflow pipe about a year ago, and fishermen were also telling us that fish stocks were depleted. The overflows happen after anything more than a little bit of rain.

"The water companies basically have a licence just to dump sewage. If the water is higher than a certain level, they say sewage could back up and flow into people's houses. We say they need to set the limit higher and upgrade the plant.

"It is happening a few times every week. We accept it will happen in exceptional weather conditions, but not day-to-day.

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"The legislation (on sewage discharge) is imposed by the EU but it is very loosely interpreted here. If anything, after Brexit it could be tightened up."

The group has made a 'citizens' application' for bathing water status to DEFRA with the support of Bradford Council and Ilkley Town Council. The government will begin consultation on the proposal on February and issue a final decision in May.

"There are often over 1,000 people swimming and paddling in the river on nice summer days - it's fine in dry conditions but the E.coli levels can be 40-50 times the safe limit after rainfall. Children are playing in that water.

"Fish numbers are declining and the water is not fit to support the ecosystem. It's a first world country and you can see this brown sludge heading up the river

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"Nobody has tried to get a river designated before. We have a fantastic team of scientists who are based locally, they have monitored and tested the water and we know it is not farm run-off - it is coming from the sewage works.

"It's happening everywhere, it's not just in Ilkley. The system isn't fit for purpose. We have manholes spewing sewage, but the water companies have walked a slow walk with improvements."

A spokesperson for Yorkshire Water said:-

"We continue to have a constructive relationship with the Ilkley Clean River group and support their application to achieve bathing water designation for the River Wharfe, which would make it the first inland bathing water in the country.

“If achieved, we, like other stakeholders would need to make changes to maintain the designation. This would focus on the capacity of the combined sewer network which has been designed to deal with both foul and surface water.”

Yorkshire's DEFRA-designated safe bathing waters in 2019

Bridlington North

Bridlington South

Cayton Bay, Scarborough

Danes Dyke, Flamborough


Flamborough South Landing



Robin Hood's Bay

Runswick Bay



Scarborough North Bay

Scarborough South Bay