Owner of popular wild swimming spot near Bath wants it to get bathing water status

Warleigh Weir may seem beautiful but there is no knowing if the water is polluted. Credit: ITV West Country

The owner of Warleigh Weir - a popular wild swimming site near Bath - wants to have the first stretch of river in the country that is safe for bathing. Currently only our coastline has designated bathing sites but it is hoped that our rivers could follow.

The move would mean our water companies having to invest millions in the way they treat sewage.   

The owner of Warleigh Weir is campaigning for it to be given bathing water status. Credit: ITV West Country

Wild swimming is increasingly popular but taking a dip can mean taking chances with your health as there is no way of knowing if the water is polluted.

Johnny Palmer, who owns the land around Warleigh Weir, wants to change this and make the stretch of river the first in the country to be given bathing water status. He says:

"The water quality in the River Avon and at Warleigh Weir is quite low sometimes because of the sewage overflows that take place upstream. If we become a designated bathing area it means the Environment Agency have to do regular testing so they can tell people if it is safe to swim in that day. They're also compelled to stop people upstream polluting the rivers."

In times of heavy rainfall, treatment plants are allowed to release raw sewage into rivers. Credit: ITV West Country

A few miles upstream from Warleigh Weir, Wessex Water treats waste to a level that protects the environment but not public health.

During bouts of heavy rainfall, sewer systems can become overwhelmed, and raw sewage mixed with rain water is released into our rivers.  It is a process that is permitted by the government.

This stretch of the River Avon could be the first in the country to get bathing water status like the coasts. Credit: ITV West Country

Wessex Water says it supports the ambition to make rivers safe for bathers but more information is needed. Matt Wheeldon says:

"It would be a much busier place - is that what we want? But also the implications are the high level of treatments require a lot more energy and chemicals.  Is that something we want to do? Do we want to impact the environment negatively to benefit public health?"

Wild swimmers welcome the chance to have confidence in the waters they are bathing in. Credit: ITV West Country

One swimmer at Warleigh Weir says, "I think it would be absolutely fantastic to have somewhere safe that you haven't got the sewage.

Why are the rivers not clean? This is 2020, we should have enough capability to keep stuff clean."

Another river bather says, "You've got it for the beaches so why not roll it out to the rivers? As long as it doesn't start to get overcrowded. That's the only problem."

The difficulty is that no one knows how safe the water is to swim in and the quality can change on an hour-by-hour basis.  The Rivers Trust says a monitoring system could open up a whole network of rivers for people to enjoy. Anneka France from the charity says:

"At the moment we don't have any monitoring of our rivers for public health and the bathing water status is what we want to see introduced to our rivers the same as we have on our coast. So for bathers it means you can be confident and comfortable that when you're getting in the water you're not going to get sick." 

A step that would be welcomed by the West Country's wild swimmers.