Published: Tuesday, 12 April 2022

Wolvercote Mill Stream, north of Port Meadow, has become the second stretch of river in the UK to achieve Designated Bathing Water Status.

This is an important step towards providing a clean wild swimming spot in Oxford, and work will now take place with partners to monitor the water quality and investigate ways in which to address pollution.

The Council will work in partnership with the Environment Agency, Thames Water, and the Oxford Rivers Project to ascertain the source of poor water quality in order to improve and maintain the status of a Bathing Water site.

Designation means that this stretch of river will be tested by the Environment Agency for two types of bacteria; E. Coli and intestinal enterococci. These bacteria typically get into water from sewage and animal manure. 

Bathing Water standards are based on World Health Organisation research into the incidence of stomach upsets in people bathing in waters with different levels of bacteria. Preliminary data undertaken by the Oxford Rivers Project, funded jointly from the Council, Thames Water, and Thames 21, suggests that currently no stretch of water in Oxford meets these standards.

Designated Bathing Water Status means the Environment Agency has a duty to test the water regularly for E. Coli and intestinal enterococci throughout the bathing water season (May to September). As the landowner, Oxford City Council will display signage displaying the water quality. This will be classified from Excellent to Poor.

If the quality is ‘poor’, an ‘advice against bathing’ symbol will be put up, although this does not mean that bathing is banned, or that the river is closed, but that bathing at the site is not advised.

The status of sites are reviewed annually, and if an improvement is not made within five years, the site will be de-designated.

“This is exciting news; wild swimming has become increasingly popular in Oxford in recent years and it’s really grown since the start of the pandemic, but our rivers still carry pollution.

“Swimmers need to feel confident their attempts to keep fit won’t result in them becoming ill with any potential bugs from bacteria in the water. Being given bathing status will ensure the provision of information that will enable swimmers to make informed choices about whether or not to swim. It also sets a timeframe and a clear standard to meet, which we’ll be working with Thames Water and other partners to achieve.”

Mish Tullar, Head of Corporate Strategy at Oxford City Council

“I’m thrilled that designated bathing water status has been granted to the Wolvercote Mill Stream in our region, the second time this has ever happened for a UK river. With this new elevated status, we’ll continue to work with Oxford City Council and our partners to monitor water quality in the Thames. It’s so important that people feel able to swim, and local wildlife can thrive, in river environments.

“Taking action to improve the health of rivers is a key focus for us. We have committed to reducing the annual duration of sewage discharges into rivers by 50% across the Thames Valley by 2030 and have planned substantial investment in our local sewer network to reduce spills, including a major expansion at Witney sewage treatment works in Oxfordshire. After a successful trial in the Oxford area, we’re also on track to provide live alerts from all 468 permitted locations across our region, within an hour of discharges starting and stopping, by the end of 2022.

“We’re clear it’s completely unacceptable for any untreated sewage to enter rivers, whether it’s permitted or not. Stopping discharges altogether will take time and sustained investment, however each step we take on this journey is a move in the right direction.”

Sarah Bentley, CEO of Thames Water

“I’m overjoyed this designation is going ahead. This stretch of river is a regularly used and treasured place for hundreds of people - families, swimmers, kayakers, rowers, anglers, birdwatchers - and a home for many other creatures, and this is the very least it deserves.

“I’m looking forward to working locally with Thames Water and other partners to ensure the water quality improves, and nationally to help other groups protect their local rivers.”

“I’d really like to thank the many people who made this possible, mainly volunteers giving their time and energy for free, and the extremely dedicated community of Oxford who love this river. Let’s hope we’re the second site of many more.”

Claire Robertson, Oxford Rivers Project Officer at environmental charity Thames21

Thames Water has a trial automatic notification system in place for Oxfordshire, to inform the public about the health of the river as close to ‘real time’ as possible.

For more information, please visit the Thames Water website.

The city council has produced the ‘Wild Water Code’, to highlight the risks users should look out for when wild swimming.

For more information visit our Wild swimming page.

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