The River Wharfe at Ilkley is frequented by as many as 2,000 people a day during warm weather and was named as an official bathing spot only in December.But data published by the Environment Agency (EA) shows the water has extremely high levels of dangerous bacteria which far surpass safety limits, leaving swimmers at risk of diarrhoea and stomach bugs.
Average levels of E. Coli, which are indicative of human or animal faeces present in the water, were 20 times higher than what the EA deems safe, when analysing data from water samples taken at two sites on the river throughout June, July and August. Similarly, levels of Intestinal Enterococci which also indicate faecal contamination, were 10 times higher than safe levels.
Analysis of the data has revealed the Wharfe suffered the country's highest levels of contamination.
Resident Becky Malby, from the Ilkley Clean River Campaign, told The Yorkshire Post that sewage from local water treatment plants was regularly being discharged into the river during wet weather, presenting a “public health disaster”.
The campaign applied for bathing status last year so that the EA would be forced to publish data on samples from the river.
“It’s no surprise at all to see these levels of bacteria,” she said.
Ms Malby said that tests carried out by campaigners had revealed as much as 40,000 coliform units of bacteria in the water at Ilkley - more than 40 times the safe threshold of 900.
Meanwhile, upstream from sewage works where campaigners thought contamination levels would be safer, they were sporadically spiking to as much as 60,000 coliform units.
“You can’t treat rivers as drains,” she said. “We are not living in medieval times. We don’t seem to understand that life in our rivers is just as important as any other ecosystem.”
Mark Barrow, a diver and river wildlife expert, described parts of the Wharfe as being like a “public toilet” and that, on recent dives, he was now seeing “more sewage and litter than fish”.
Yorkshire Water says it has committed to improving water quality by reducing discharges from sewer overflow points, which will include reducing the amount of water entering sewers from Ilkley Tarn.
“We are expecting this project to be completed in December, with further work to increase the capacity of the sewer networks scheduled for completion in late 2022,” a spokeswoman said.
An Environment Agency spokeswoman said: “Rivers are very different to coastal waters – and as the first stretch of river to be designated as a bathing water in England, the River Wharfe faces different challenges.
“We know that water quality won’t change overnight, but will require work from water companies, farmers and others to see change. This is already underway through a coalition led by Yorkshire Water with the Environment Agency, Bradford Council, National Farmers Union (NFU), Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and landowners upstream of Ilkley.”