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How to Help Your River: Bathing Water Status


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August 25, 2023

River water quality may have been the scandal of this year but it’s still shocking that out of 200,000km of English rivers, there are only a couple of hundred metres that are deemed officially safe to swim in. Journalist Jack Thompson explains more, and talks with grassroots community group Friends of the River Dart:

This legal designation, known as ‘bathing water status’, is granted by Defra to places with high volumes of swimmers and gives special powers to the Environment Agency to penalise those responsible for pollution and force them to make changes to improve water quality. In short, obtaining this status has the potential to radically improve the ecology of English rivers and act as a direct way for communities to effect change in their local environment.

Despite this potential, only two sites in England have managed to achieve bathing water status, with the Guardian reporting less than 10 per cent of applications have been successful and swimmers are being “left to swim in their filth”.

Although the application is arduous, community groups continue to battle to achieve the transformative designation. One such group is Friends of the Dart, based on the scenic stretch from Dartington to Dartmouth.

We talked to volunteer co-manager of the grassroots group, Ana Simons, about their experiences, learnings and what advice she would give to others wanting to clean up their rivers:

SusSH/JT: How did it all begin?

AS: Friends of the Dart started as a Facebook Group for people posting about what a lovely swim they had. Then about a year, somebody asked if anyone had been ill and if any of their friends or even dogs had got ill. A lot of people said yes and they knew lots of people who had. Suddenly people became very interested in what was in the river and has continued since then.

SusSh: Why did you apply for bathing water status?

AS: Despite some of the shortfalls in the way in which DEFRA operates the system, it is the only framework that we can work within to keep the dialogue going about cleaning up the river quicker.

SusSH: Why is the designation important?

AS: We can hold [polluters] to account. It’s a way of enforcing water companies, in our case Southwest Water, to reduce sewage spills, from 1000 to two spills a year. It’s about holding them to account and monitoring the progress to reduce the sewage by continuing to test and seeing if it's if it's being effective.

We would also be completely elated and think it would galvanise other communities to follow suit. We conducted a survey and found that the river is an incredibly important place for social, emotional and mental health, as well as all kinds of sporting and business reasons.

SusSH: What does a site need to qualify?  

AS: There are infrastructure requirements; it has to have public toilets 500 metres away, parking, easy access and not damage the riverbank. You also have to have the permission of the landowners to be able to go ahead, as well as clubs or businesses that are water-based.

You need to be able to prove that there are at least two days a year when there are a minimum of 100 people swimming in a four-hour period, and it must be ‘bathers’ as kayakers or canoers don’t count and neither do events like the river Dart 10km race.

SusSH: What advice do you have for people and communities looking to achieve bathing water status?

AS: We've had really helpful support from Surfers Against Sewage. They've been in right from the beginning helping us, advising us about our testing programme and training people. They’ve helped us to fund the equipment like testing kits and the analysis costs. They've really jumped started us.

If your community is interested in finding out more about obtaining Bathing Water Status or joining Friends of the Dart, please contact Ana at

Surfers Against Sewage offers a bathing water designation community toolkit. Click here for more information.