Testing of River Wharfe as part of Ilkley bathing water status project found elevated levels of E.coli at Grassington, Burnsall and Linton Falls

Monitoring of the River Wharfe will extend far beyond Ilkley once the new bathing water designation is activated after high levels of E.coli bacteria were found in other stretches of water.

The River Wharfe at Ilkley

The charity Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust has been working with Yorkshire Water as part of the Wharfe Partnership, which has been set up to manage the full length of the river from its source to its confluence with the Ouse, and last summer tested samples of water in its upper catchment.

Although the bathing water status was awarded by DEFRA last year after citizen scientists proved there were elevated levels of faecal bacteria attributed to sewage overflows from a neraby treatment plant in Ilkley, further analysis has shown evidence of pollution upstream.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Popular visitor spots Burnsall, Grassington and Linton Falls within the Yorkshire Dales National Park - which regularly attract swimmers - all returned high readings of E.coli when tested in 2020.

Linton Falls

E.coli can cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting and poses a particular risk to children and vulnerable adults.

In a 90-minute virtual town hall meeting held on Thursday, senior Yorkshire Water staff confirmed that the Wharfe Partnership would monitor the overall health of the river and that it has 'strong government backing'.

Keighley's MP, Robbie Moore, believes that the government is keen to roll out more public-led bathing water schemes at other rivers across the country and he has invited environment minister Rebecca Pow to visit Ilkley this summer.

Private landowners including the Escrick, Harewood and Bolton Abbey estates will all be involved and all minutes and agendas from the Wharfe Partnership's meetings will be made publicly available.

Yorkshire Water's director of corporate affairs Richard Emmott acknowledged that the water industry 'recognises public disquiet over water courses', but argued that this was in part because data on sewage discharges has only been published since 2015.

He also reiterated that the overarching priorities for the Wharfe Partnership would go beyond safe swimming and encompass groups such as anglers and conservationists to ensure the wider ecological health of the river. All potential sources of pollution will be investigated, including in the Wharfe's feeder tributaries.

Partnerships manager Lee Pitcher spoke at length about mitigation work in Ilkley to prevent sewage overflows but warned that some schemes would take more than a year to be completed due to the complex nature of hydrology modelling.

"We are looking at diverting the flows into the Backstone Beck, and we are planning to upgrade the overflow screen at Riverside View in the autumn, which will separate solid waste from liquid after rainfall. We're also looking at a new transfer sewer to reduce outflow, which will have two potential diversion routes and will be done in 2022.

"We know there are concerns around timescales, but it is really important that we understand the models and that the solutions are thorough. It takes time to get it right.

"We have been working with consultants to investigate the water quality, and we need to look at all sources of E.coli bacteria. Tracking is a huge piece of work because you need to look at all the tributaries, all sources including agricultural run-off."

Mr Pitcher also revealed that Ilkley would now be included on Surfers Against Sewage's real-time Safer Seas and River Service app, which swimmers can download to monitor if there have been any discharges into the Wharfe in the previous 48 hours.

The meeting also heard from Charlotte Simons from the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust, who said that the charity's Dales and Vales Rivers Network project wants to recruit citizen scientists to monitor water quality, volunteer samplers and run a data sharing platform. They have divided the Wharfe into five sections, each with between 10-12 sampling sites where faecal bacteria and nutrient levels can be monitored.

A 'Citizen Jury' formed of residents living along the Wharfe found that public priorities for the river were mainly flood management, removing sewage and water quality.

Bradford Council's area co-ordinator for Keighley, Jonathan Hayes, spoke about new visitor management plans for the Ilkley Riverside Parks this summer following well-publicised issues with anti-social behaviour, littering and dangerous parking in 2020. The river attracted large groups of youths, some of whom had travelled from as far as Manchester, and became a 'party' spot with fighting and drug use reported.

Mr Hayes confirmed that there had been 'overwhelming public support' for the council's application for a Public Spaces Protection Order, which gives police additional enforcement powers, and that this should be in place from June 1.

He added that there will be additional warden patrols this year and that events and activities will be organised for young people. Smaller litter bins on East Holmes Field have been replaced by several large trade waste bins as evidence found people were more likely to use them than leave bags of 'side litter' beside overflowing small bins.

There will be more parking restrictions in place, including on Denton Road and in a lay-by used by ice cream vans last summer which raised child safety concerns.

Regarding signage, Mr Hayes said new signs would be in place advising swimming upstream of the sewage works and featuring maps and discharge points. The Royal Lifesaving Society had visited the site to conduct a risk assessment, and further signs will depict hazards.

He added that the water itself will be unclassified in its first season until a full summer of regular testing has been completed.