April 15, 2024


The waters of the River Cam are an unsettling lurid green on a dull day. The river that flows through Cambridge and has been enjoyed by swimmers including Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf and Roger Deakin is increasingly polluted from sewage discharges and phosphates and nitrates from farmland.

Now swimmers hope that the government designating a short stretch of the river at Sheep’s Green as “bathing waters” will provide the impetus to clean it up.

The government will next month decide whether to approve up to 27 bathing water sites in England including four spots on the River Dart in Devon, two on Lake Coniston in the Lake District and popular riverine swimming places on the Severn, Stour, Ribble, Thames, Tone and Wharfe.

As well as encouraging increasingly popular wild swimming, supporters of the bathing waters designation say that the weekly water quality monitoring it necessitates would provide the evidence to legally require water companies to tackle pollution.

Opponents argue that the water companies are already legally obliged to tackle pollution and designating polluted rivers for swimming endangers people’s health and puts the onus on citizen action to correct regulatory shortcomings.

At Sheep’s Green, conservationists and some residents are vehemently opposed to the designation because of the impact extra visitors would have on a trio of adjacent nature reserves.

According to opponents of the designation, Sheep’s Green already throngs with summer visitors including Cambridge punts, paddleboarders, picnickers and canoe club members. They fear the bathing water designation would attract even more visitors, who erode the banks where water voles live and picnic on the ecologically sensitive nature reserves, which are also already filled with decomposing toilet tissue from wild toiletting.

“It’s crazy,” said Pamela Gatrell, the chair of Friends of Paradise, one of the three nature reserves surrounding the proposed bathing area. “The facilities needed for a bathing waters site just aren’t here. The small car park is already full in the summer and there is one set of toilets in the playground, and they are frequently out of use.

“The designation will make Sheep’s Green a honeypot destination with everybody concentrated in one area instead of spreading swimming along the river. It encourages people to think a little section of the river can be cleaned up, rather than cleaning up the whole river.”

Pamela Gatrell, the chair of Friends of Paradise, said the facilities at Sheep’s Green were not adequate for the area to be made a designated swimming spot. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

The designation for Sheep’s Green is supported by Cambridge city council, Anglian Water and the Cam Valley Forum charity, which proposed the idea. Its consultation of more than 500 people found 93% in favour.

According to the charity, designation is a pragmatic and useful step to cleaning up the river.

“It’s not a panacea and it’s not instant but getting the designation definitely helps,” said Anne Miller, of the Cam Valley Forum. “The free market water system is completely dysfunctional. Bathing water designation is one of the few legal levers that we have, and in the recent past it has been effective. We should be using every lever we can to get the water companies to clean up the Cam.”

Supporters of the Sheep’s Green designation cite the example of Ilkley, the first riverine site to be designated in 2021, where Yorkshire Water is investing in new sewage pipes to clean up the River Wharfe.

If Sheep’s Green is made a bathing water site, the Environment Agency must record the water quality weekly during the bathing season from 15 May to 30 September. Results would be published online within days so swimmers know if the river is safe.

A “poor” rating for the water quality after the first swimming season would trigger a statutory obligation to identify the cause of the pollution. Miller expects that to happen and then, as long as Ofwat approve it, Anglian Water would be obliged by 2027 to upgrade the sewage works serving the village of Haslingfield upstream, which is understood to be the source of sewage pollution on the Cam.

According to Miller, Anglian Water, which supports the bathing water designation, has said that it is the quickest way to ensure the £5m Haslingfield sewage upgrade happens.

Opposing the designation are ecologists, the Green party, CPRE, Friends of the Earth and Friends of the Cam.

Tony Booth, of Friends of the Cam, said bathing water designations wrongly put the impetus on swimmer-activists and slow down the cleaning up of the rivers.

“The water companies are illegally dumping sewage into the rivers on a gigantic scale. The government should look to the power of the regulators and set a date for when it can be solved. What you don’t say is, ‘Why not use the energy of citizens all over the country to campaign for a clean bit of river in their area?’ It lets a regulatory-averse Defra off the hook and puts the onus on citizens to demand a bit of clean river.”

Addressing fears that the designation would lead to visitors disturbing the wildlife at Sheep’s Green, which includes kingfishers, water birds and eight species of bat, Miller said Ilkley reported no increase in the number of swimmers after its designation. She also said swimmers were unlikely to swim as far as Paradise nature reserve.

City councillors have said there will no “marketing” of Sheep’s Green as a swimming destination and they have no plans to expand the facilities there.

Miller added: “It is on our doorstep and it’s a special little place and I’d like it to stay that way too, but it’s not our private garden.”

The government consultation on the 27 bathing water sites ends on Sunday.



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