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sewage pumping into a river contamination

Contaminated Rivers A Concern For River Sports Lovers

There are many different types of water sports, from kayaking to surfing, boat races to free-diving. Some of them require the sea to be mastered, whilst others are more readily occurring in the rivers up and down the land.

In recent years, pollution in the rivers around the United Kingdom have made the latter much more troublesome for those that wish to take part in them, with illness being an increasing concern. In the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, the rules in place on water companies have been a lot less stringent, allowing them to create a ‘chemical cocktail’ in the country’s waterways that is a major issue.

What is Happening To Our Rivers?

man checking river quality in hazmat suit

According to a report from Members of Parliament, the rivers around England are contaminated by a ‘chemical cocktail’ of agricultural and real pollution and sewage. Both water companies and farms have repeatedly engaged in breaches of the environmental regulations that were in place and that were stringently upheld by the EU, but which have been allowed to slide since Brexit. It isn’t just those that might wish to swim or engage in some other form of water sport that is suffering either. With each person in the United Kingdom using around 140 litres of water every day for things like washing and drinking, water is requiring much more treatment before it enters our homes.

On top of that, the wildlife that lives and survives in the waterways around the country are under threat. The rising pollution levels place 10% of the wetland and freshwater species at risk of extinction, whilst 38% of fish health checks have been failing because of diseases caused by the pollution. The pollution itself is coming from the following:

  • Excessive fertiliser and pesticides being used in agriculture makes its way into waters and causes around 40% of the water pollution
  • Sewage released by water companies untreated is causing around 35% of the pollution
  • What is known as ‘run-off’ from roads and other areas containing pollutions such as oil and is responsibly for in the region of 18% of the pollution

The rest of it is made up of things that we barely even understand, with the likes of microplastics and pharmaceuticals already a problem and likely to become even more of an issue as the years go by and their usage increases. According to a report from the River Trust, no English river is in good chemical health.

By the middle of 2024, just 14% of all of the rivers in England were able to claim good ecological status. It was felt by a panel of MPs that looked into the matter that the river quality in England was the worst in Europe. On top of that, the reality is that rivers run across boarders, meaning that the likes of Scotland and Wales are also having issues thanks to the poor management of them in England. Whilst water companies do have a remit to dump untreated or partially treated water into rivers in ‘exceptional circumstances’, many of them have done it numerous times even when there was no exceptional need to do so.

How Sports are Affected

rowers race on the thames in london

The first thing to note is that complaints about discharge into our rivers causing issues for sports people is not a new thing. As far back as 2004 there were reports of the River Thames suffering from sewage discharge that resulted in canoeists blaming it for making them sick. There is little doubt, though, that it is more more of an issue in the modern day than it has been previously. In 2022, for example, there were 7,168 spills into the Coral Irwell catchment area near Manchester. By 2023, this had gone up to 11,974, which was the highest rate of any English river when accounting for its length, with 95 spills per mile.

The Croal is the main tributary of the Irwell, with the pair of them serving Manchester and Salford. They are both popular with rowers, making them the scene of numerous regattas every summer. Efforts were made in the wake of the industrial revolution to clean up the river, seeing it become filled with the likes of roach, chub and bream, as well as birds like kingfishers, cormorants and grey herons. The dumping of sewage into the river has threatened that ecological recovery, however, to say nothing of made it much more likely that any people looking to use the Irwell or the Croal for their sporting needs are running a major risk in doing so.

Whilst rivers in the North of England were bearing the brunt of the sewage pollution, the 2024 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race made the news when rowers became ill and E. coli in the River Thames was believed to be responsible. There was a decision made that the rowers wouldn’t jump into the water at the end of the race, as had become tradition, but Sir Steve Redgrave said that that isn’t the only way that rowers can become ill. He said,

“It’s not just about swimming in the water it’s as your blade hits the water, there’s a spray that comes off it so you do get wet from whatever, so if there is foul stuff in the water, the chance is you’re going to be taking it in in one form or another and it’s not very pleasant.”

Thames Water, the company responsible for maintaining the health of the River Thames, said that they were taking action to improve the health of the river but also engaged in what amounted to a form of victim blaming. The company said,

“We remain the only company to provide live alerts for all untreated discharges and this ‘near real-time’ data is available to customers as a map on our website and is also available through an open data platform for third parties.”

In other words, they might be sticking sewage into the water but at least they’re telling you where they’re doing it, so why don’t you check the website before you swim?

With almost a fifth of those aged between 18 and 34 having tried wild swimming or other water sports, that is the age group most at risk from any contaminated water. Polling was carried out by Surfers Against Sewage, with the information revealing that more than half of all people were concerned about swimming in British waters. If you don’t want to swim in the water then you aren’t likely to want to engage in water sports either, which is why the contaminated rivers are making it such a risk for those that might otherwise wish to take to the rivers and other waterways around the country for their own amusement.

Of all of those spoken to by Surfers Against Sewage, around a fifth said that either they had fallen ill or someone that they knew had done so after taking to the water. The most common illnesses suffered were an ear infection or diarrhoea. Surfers Against Sewage launched a free app in the form of the the Safer Seas & River Service, which allows people to see in real-time whether waters are safe to take a dip in at any given moment. Quite whether people should really need to check an app before taking to a river or getting into the sea is a different matter, not least of all because rivers tend not to be subject to the same monitoring as seas.