Bringing You the Daily Dispatch

All we wanted was to protect the River Wye from pollution. Now we’re stuck in a catch-22 | Oliver Bullough
Environment World News

All we wanted was to protect the River Wye from pollution. Now we’re stuck in a catch-22 | Oliver Bullough

The state of Britain’s rivers is incredibly depressing: the water companies dump too much sewage, the farmers dump too much muck, and the regulators are too cowed and underfunded to do their job and stop them.

It wasn’t always this way. As a child I used to swim in the River Wye and I remember the clouds of mayflies in the summer, as well as huge leaping salmon. It was thanks to this wealth of wildlife that the Wye was classified as a special area of conservation along its whole length. Sadly, however, thanks to the failure of the Welsh and British governments to protect the river, much of this abundance is gone, and the Wye’s official status is now “unfavourable – declining”, thanks to pollution from manure and sewage.

This deterioration has not gone unnoticed by the rivers’ visitors: swimmers regularly complain about getting upset stomachs after they venture into the water. My kids still swim in the Wye, but many of their friends’ parents are too concerned about them getting sick to allow them in. It feels as though our river is being taken away from us.

Fortunately, we citizens have a tool we can use to oblige politicians to take notice and force regulators to do their job. By law, the water quality of any stretch of river that is officially designated as having “bathing status” must be checked, and if it’s deemed to be poor, the government must take steps to improve it. And what are the grounds for designation? “Large numbers of bathers at sites during the period 15 May to 30 September,” according to the Welsh government’s guidance.

All you need to do is gather evidence that people swim somewhere and then apply for status; so we at Friends of the River Wye, a group set up by local people to monitor the river’s health, decided to do just that. Over the summer of 2022, our volunteers regularly visited the Warren, a popular bathing spot just upstream of Hay-on-Wye, and recorded how many people were swimming, fishing, using the beach and canoeing. We consulted local businesses and residents, environmental groups, the town council, everyone we could think of. A year ago, we submitted the application.

We were confident that we would gain designation. On just one day in July, we recorded 150 people on the beach, 32 people swimming, eight people canoeing and six people paddling, which was definitely enough to count as a “large number”. Even in May and September, we had recorded people in the water. We had support from local members of the Senedd and from the House of Commons; from local canoeing companies, campsites, the Wildlife Trust and more. The Welsh government, which makes a lot of its supposed commitment to “future generations”, claims that improving water quality is a key priority, so we would presumably be pushing at an open door.

If we were to achieve designation, the implications would be enormous. The Warren is only a few hundred metres from the border of Wales and England, but the Wye drains much of mid-Wales. By forcing the government to improve water quality there, we would be forcing it to improve the entire Welsh catchment of the Wye. Politicians in Cardiff would actually have to do something to protect this special area of conservation.

But last week they turned us down, on grounds that made the frustration even worse. The Welsh government is apparently concerned that having bathers in the river will harm the environment, considering its protected status and the Warren’s position as a site of special scientific interest. “While there is appropriate evidence on the number of bathers at the Warren,” the government said in its letter to us, “there are significant concerns regarding the environmental impacts on the site should it be designated as a bathing water.”

This is an absurd, catch-22 situation. The only way to protect the river is to prove people swim in it – but to have people actually in the water, according to the Welsh government, is to environmentally endanger it. The truth is that the Warren is already a popular spot to swim – bathing status or not. The stretch of river is famous, having been recommended as a bathing site in guidebooks for decades, and in publications ranging from the Daily Mail to Condé Nast Traveller. In the summer, dozens of people swim there every day, tourists as well as us locals cooling off after work. Dozens more people canoe past on their way downstream.

The only real impact of granting bathing status to the stretch of river would be to force the government to protect the health of the people who use it by improving the quality of the water. That would also give the Wye’s birds, mammals, fish, plants and insects a chance to thrive in a river that’s not being used as a waste-disposal chute.

Earlier this month, the Conservative government in London published an “action plan” to improve the Wye that didn’t even mention the need to enforce the environmental rules that are supposed to protect the river. Now, by refusing our bathing water request, the Labour government in Cardiff is using environmental safeguards it is failing to enforce as an excuse not to protect the river. It is infuriating, but we must use their intransigence as a spur to action. If apathy about this environmental emergency is shared by both main parties, we citizens need to become ever more ready to force politicians to do what is needed to protect our rivers.

  • Oliver Bullough is the author of Butler to the World: How Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals

Source: theguardian.com