Julia Hailes MBE

Sustainability Pioneer


Swimming in sewage (Aug22)

I was very surprised to be told by the Environment Agency that no-one should be swimming in UK rivers because they were too polluted.

My son and a couple of his friends had been at a popular swimming spot on the River Avon. A few hours later they were all violently sick. The extraordinary thing was the Environment Agency wasn’t shocked at all – but they did shock me. They said that they weren’t sure if what I was reporting should be classed as an incident. The person I spoke to said that the sickness could have been caused by any number of things and that my son and his friends should see a doctor to find out what it might be! He also pointed out that my son hadn’t actually seen sewage floating in the water!

I wasn’t very satisfied with this. The mission of the Environment Agency is: ‘We work to create better places for people and wildlife, and support sustainable development.’ It seemed to me that what I was reporting was definitely within their remit and I asked them to find out more about the sewage outlets in the part of the river, where my son was swimming.

It turned out that there was a sewage outlet in the very same spot. Then they said that it was unlikely to have been releasing sewage then because it was an overflow outlet, which would only be used after a lot of rain. Of course, we all know now that there are frequent flouting of these rules – and it had been very sunny for several days before this happened.

They were right about it not being safe to swim in the River Avon though. My son had some other friends – about 10 of them who paddle boarded from Bristol centre to Beeses, Brislington. And they all got e-coli. They didn’t do it again.

There are no signs to tell people not to swim anywhere along the River Avon, as far as I know. Why not?

Popular swimming spot on the River Avon – I found an article warning people about the sewage

More importantly, what can be done. Of course, the answer is that the solution to this problem is extremely expensive because a lot of old infrastructure needs modernising. But, I think that the water companies should be making it a much higher priority and doing a lot more. Government targets are also totally inadequate. They have set a target of just 40% reduction by 2040 – 18 years and we’re still going to be swimming in poo.

One of the things I learnt in my research on this, is that new houses are built without looking at water sources and how the sewage system is going to cope. That’s mad and bad.

Fishermen too are up in arms. The UK has 80% of the world’s chalk streams, which are excellent for fishing. Or, at least they were. Most of them have been totally destroyed as excessive amounts of water is abstracted and large amount of sewage released – along with agricultural pollution. Only 14% of them are in good condition.

One excellent organisation to support to support is Surfer’s Against Sewage. Also, the Rivers Trust have published a sewage map, so you can see where the main outlets are.

This summer, as many of you will have seen, there was a huge outcry about this. I was contacted by Sky News – and some other stations too – to give my opinion about it. See video at end of this blog. Also article that featured me in the Evening Standard.

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