A new report has revealed the ‘shocking state of UK bathing waters’, which says dozens of popular swimming locations should be deemed ‘poor quality’.
Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), which campaigns for clean oceans, rivers and lakes, released its annual water quality report on Tuesday after sampling 40 locations.
20 surveyed sites were popular for swimming and 20 were upstream of nearby sewage overflow associated with the swimming spots- though none of the sites are officially designated ‘bathing waters’.
The research found that 24 of these locations would be deemed ‘poor quality’ if they had been official bathing waters, as per the Environment Agency’s methodology.
And four out of 20 locations showed a clear decrease in water quality from locations upstream to those downstream of a sewage overflow.
In 2023, untreated sewage was discharged more than 399,000 times into UK waterways – the equivalent of more than 1,000 discharge events every day.
Elsewhere in the report, the SAS said it received 1,924 reports of cases of sicknesses due to sewage pollution in the last year, with many leading to hospitalisation, events cancelled, earnings lost and businesses closed.
Giles Bristow, chief executive of SAS, said: ‘Yet again, our annual water quality report reveals the complacency and disregard of governments, water companies and regulators towards the health of rivers and coastlines in the UK – and by extension people’s health.
‘We are seeing failure at every level – from governments and regulators failing to enforce the law, to water company fat cats pocketing dirty money and refusing to clean up their act – with the general public ending up the biggest loser every time.’
SAS emphasised that leaders need to become more transparent and ensure laws regarding water quality are enforced.
Labour’s shadow secretary of state for the environment, Steve Reed MP, said: ‘The water industry is broken after 13 years of Tory government – with stinking, toxic sewage lapping up on our rivers, lakes, and seas.
‘It is disgusting that families and children cannot enjoy our waters without the threat of getting sick.’
A Water UK spokesperson said: ‘Water industry investment has transformed coastal bathing water with a sevenfold increase in the number of beaches achieving an ‘excellent’ from the Environment Agency since the 1990s.
‘We now need to do the same for our rivers and inland bathing areas to ensure we meet public expectation.’
An Environment Agency spokesperson said: ‘Whether it’s tackling agricultural pollution, road run-off or sewage discharges, we know there is more to do to improve designated bathing sites and our waterways, which is why we will work with everyone – from farmers or water companies through to citizen scientists – to reduce pollution.
‘We will also take action against polluters where there is evidence permits have not been complied with and we are conducting our largest ever criminal investigation into potential widespread non-compliance by water and sewerage companies at thousands of sewage treatment works.’
Water minister Rebecca Pow said: ‘We agree the volume of pollution in our waters is utterly unacceptable, and this is the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it.
‘Our Plan for Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to ensure every overflow is monitored, reduce all sources of pollution and hand out swifter fines and penalties.
‘This plan includes targets so strict they are leading to the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – £60 billion over 25 years – which in turn will result in hundreds of thousands fewer sewage discharges.’
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