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River Wharfe: One of England's most polluted rivers

By Jamie Walker, Prince Henry's Grammar School Sixth Form student

In 2020, there were 400,000 pollutant discharges into UK rivers. This includes the biggest pollutant of our waters, fertiliser, raw sewage (the second biggest pollutant) and also manure.

It is therefore unsurprising to hear that just 14% of England's rivers are ecologically rated 'Good' by the environment agency. In Northern Ireland, this figure is only a little better, but still shockingly small at 33%. One river in particular, the River Wharfe, flows through Ilkley, a town just a few miles northwest of Otley, where Otley 2030 is based. Today I will be discussing its pollution levels and ecological health, how this is bad for humans and our environment, but also what we can do to fix this problem.

The River Wharfe is rated as 'Poor' for bathing by the environment agency. Ilkley is a spa town that is very popular with tourists, especially in summer months, where hundreds of people will play and bathe in the river every day, completely oblivious to the germs and bacteria that will invade their bodies when doing so. Local advice from an expert suggested that one should never even paddle in the river, let alone swim, and once reaching home, it is recommended to shower immediately and thoroughly. The Wharfe's pollution levels are so high that, residents have claimed to see effluent floating in the river on numerous occasions. This obviously concerned them, so something had to be done.

Step forward, the Ilkley Clean River Group . This group of people installed a sign in one of the designated bathing points in the river by the old bridge near the town centre, with a QR code on it where open water swimmers of all abilities can check the current water quality - this was still 'Poor' in 2021!

The QR code next to the River Wharfe in Ilkley.

Yorkshire Water have also installed CSO Pipes (Combined Sewage Overflow Pipes) in Ilkley. These pipes allow sewage to be pumped into the river at periods of torrential or prolonged rainfall. England's sewage system was, of course, originally constructed in the Victorian era and in many urban areas all of the sewage was collected in one pipe and transported to a water treatment plant. It would cost the government billions of pounds to overhaul this system and rebuild it as a much more modern sewage network that avoids travelling through our rivers. If this were to happen, it would make our rivers a lot safer to bathe in. However, realistically speaking, the government simply doesn't have the money to throw at overhauling the sewage system, when there are more important things that people need to use that we need to spend money on, such as green technology.

To make matters worse for the River Wharfe, urban expansion means that the sewage system is overflowing - more people using the same system keeps pushing the pipes well over capacity.

Furthermore, back up the river, in Grassington, a village in the Yorkshire Dales, there were over 120 storm discharges in 2020. This is where rainwater mixes with raw sewage in the river. This is similar to Ilkley, in that it thrives on the tourism industry in the summer holidays, but again, the holidaymakers (and locals) bathing in the contaminated water is frequently making people ill.

So how can we reduce our impact? Items such as baby wipes being flushed down the toilet contribute hugely to blocked sewage pipes, allowing sludge to build up and massively increasing the amount of waste being pumped out into rivers. The same applies for oil being poured down sinks. The increased urban expansion means more construction works are taking place. This, therefore, increases the amount of surface runoff into rivers, and also the level of Ecoli is very high in the River Wharfe, according to the Ilkley Clean River Group.

One thing that is being done to help is the construction of the Thames Tideway Tunnel in London - this alone is a very expensive project, costing a hefty £2.4 billion to stop storm discharge. This is a good thing and a positive step in the right direction, however it is estimated that it would cost up to £600 billion if the same project was taken on for the entirety of England's rivers!!

Scottish Water is a bit better than England - 66% of Scottish rivers are classified as 'Good' ecologically; they are not privatised and therefore 35% more money is spent on cleaning up Scottish rivers.

A change in attitude is required tp reduce highway runoff and agricultural pollutants. The climate crisis is deepening and the frequency of severe storms is increasing, meaning river pollution will only get worse.

We need to act today.


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