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Row over possible River Cam bathing spot frequented by Darwin and Lord Byron
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Row over possible River Cam bathing spot frequented by Darwin and Lord Byron

On dreary days, the River Cam appears a disturbing shade of green. This river, known for being a popular spot for swimmers such as Lord Byron, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, and Roger Deakin, is suffering from rising pollution caused by sewage and chemicals from nearby farms.

Currently, swimmers are optimistic that the government’s decision to label a small portion of the river at Sheep’s Green as “bathing waters” will motivate efforts to improve its cleanliness.

Next month, the government will make a decision on whether to give approval for up to 27 places for bathing in England. These include four locations along the River Dart in Devon, two on Lake Coniston in the Lake District, and various popular spots for river swimming on the Severn, Stour, Ribble, Thames, Tone, and Wharfe.

Advocates for the bathing waters classification tout its potential to promote the growing trend of wild swimming. They argue that the mandatory weekly testing for water quality will serve as proof to legally obligate water companies to address issues of pollution.

Critics claim that the current legal requirements for water companies to address pollution are sufficient, and that listing contaminated rivers as suitable for swimming creates health hazards and shifts the responsibility onto individuals to address regulatory gaps.

At Sheep’s Green, there is strong opposition from conservationists and local residents to the designation due to concerns over the potential increase in visitors and its impact on three nearby nature reserves.

Some people who oppose the designation argue that Sheep’s Green is already crowded during the summer with visitors, such as people on punts, paddleboarders, picnickers, and canoe club members from Cambridge. They are concerned that the designation could bring in more visitors, leading to further damage to the riverbanks where water voles live. These visitors also tend to leave behind toilet tissue in the nature reserves, which is harmful to the environment.

Pamela Gatrell, who is the chair of Friends of Paradise, one of the three nature reserves that encompass the planned bathing area, explained that the current situation is absurd. She pointed out that the necessary amenities for a bathing water location are not present. The tiny parking lot is already at capacity during the summer, and there is only one set of toilets in the playground, which are often unusable.

“The designation of Sheep’s Green will create a popular destination, bringing all individuals to a central location instead of dispersed swimming along the river. This promotes the idea that a specific portion of the river can be restored, rather than attempting to clean up the entire river.”

Pamela Gatrell stands on a path beside the river

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The Cambridge city council, Anglian Water, and Cam Valley Forum charity all support the naming of Sheep’s Green, which was suggested by the charity. A survey of over 500 individuals showed that 93% are in agreement with the proposal.

The charity suggests that designation is a practical and helpful measure for improving the cleanliness of the river.

According to Anne Miller, member of the Cam Valley Forum, obtaining the designation is not a perfect solution and it does not bring immediate results. However, it does provide assistance. She believes that the current free market system for water management is not functioning properly. The designation of bathing water is one of the limited legal methods available to them and it has proven to be effective in the past. In order to hold the water companies accountable for cleaning up the Cam, all conceivable means should be utilized.

Those in favor of the Sheep’s Green designation highlight the case of Ilkley, which was the first site along a river to be assigned the designation in 2021. Yorkshire Water is currently making investments to install new sewage pipes in order to improve the cleanliness of the River Wharfe.

If the Sheep’s Green area were to be designated as a bathing water site, the Environment Agency would be required to conduct weekly water quality assessments during the bathing season, from May 15th to September 30th. The results of these assessments would be promptly posted online so that swimmers can easily determine the safety of the river.

If the water quality receives a “poor” rating after the initial swimming season, there is a legal requirement to determine the root cause of the contamination. Miller predicts that this will occur and, pending Ofwat’s approval, Anglian Water will be obligated to improve the sewage system servicing Haslingfield by 2027. It is believed that this area is responsible for sewage pollution in the Cam river.

Per Miller, Anglian Water, who backs the bathing water classification, has expressed that it is the most efficient means of guaranteeing the prompt execution of the £5m Haslingfield sewage upgrade.

Ecologists, the Green Party, CPRE, Friends of the Earth, and Friends of the Cam all oppose the designation.

According to Tony Booth from the organization Friends of the Cam, designations for bathing water are placing the responsibility on swimmers and hindering the progress of river clean-up efforts.

Illegal sewage dumping into rivers by water companies is a widespread issue. The government should utilize regulator authority and establish a deadline for resolution. Instead, the focus should be on empowering citizens across the nation to advocate for the cleanliness of their local rivers. This shifts the burden from the regulation-avoidant Defra to the citizens who can demand cleaner rivers.

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.

The city council has stated that they will not advertise Sheep’s Green as a swimming spot and they do not intend to increase the amenities in that area.

Miller stated, “The location is immediately accessible to us and holds sentimental value. I would also like it to remain unique, but it is not exclusively our personal space.”

The government’s survey for the 27 bathing water locations will conclude on Sunday.

Source: theguardian.com