The county’s only official swimming spot has failed bacteria safety tests, just moths after being granted bathing water status.

Castle Mill Stream, a backwater of the River Thames, was granted bathing water status by the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) after a long campaign by wild swimmers and locals to improve the water quality and stop sewage releases by Thames Water.

The designation means the popular swimming spot is tested weekly between May and September for harmful bacteria by the Environment Agency.

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However, eight months on from being designated with bathing water status the river has failed bacteria safety tests, with figures from the Environment Agency indicating both E Coli and Intestinal Enterococci are present at levels higher than it is safe to swim in.

Campaign group Thames21 is now calling on Thames Water to urgently improve Cassington sewage treatment works to prevent this from happening again.

Claire Robertson, Oxford rivers project pfficer at Thames21, said: “We are disappointed, but not surprised, by these results at Wolvercote, given that Thames Water released untreated sewage into the rivers around Oxford for 5,600 hours in 2021 and given our results from citizen science testing last year.

“However, we are surprised that Thames Water has presented no firm plans to upgrade sewage treatment which affects swimmers on this stretch of river.

“There are only four more years to achieve a “sufficient” or higher designation at Wolvercote, otherwise the site may be de-designated.

“However, Thames Water state it plans to halve raw sewage spills by 2030.

“This is not nearly fast enough for the swimmers and paddlers at Wolvercote, many of them families with young children, nor for the wildlife and plants that call this part of the Thames their home.

“We need action now.

“We’re looking forward to hearing where they plan to put in upgrades so we can swim safely at Wolvercote, and how the Environment Agency can support and enforce these improvements.” 

Thames Water, however, state all of its water is “fully treated” and is committed to reducing sewage discharges into the Thames.

Richard Aylard, Thames Water sustainability director, said: “Taking action to improve the health of rivers is a key focus for us. All sewage discharged from Cassington STW since April 2021 has been fully treated and while the sewage treatment process is not designed to remove bacteria, we recognise the concerns raised regarding the presence of bacteria in the river which can come from multiple sources.

“As a member of the Oxford Rivers Project, who made the application for designated bathing water status at Wolvercote Mill Stream, we’ll continue to work with our partners to understand what more needs to be done to ensure consistently good water quality in the Thames.   

“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 the need for untreated discharges, including a major expansion at Witney sewage treatment works in Oxfordshire.

“After a successful trial in the Oxford area, we’re finalising the provision of live alerts from all 468 permitted locations across our region, 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.”

Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, who represents Oxford West and Abingdon, helped to campaign for bathing water status.

She said: “When Wolvercote Mill Stream was granted bathing water status earlier this year it brought joy to the whole community.

"This stretch of river is regularly used by hundreds of people – families swimming, kayakers and rowers, as well as anglers, and birdwatchers.

"It is a treasured place for many in our community. Wolvercote Mill Stream is one of only three rivers in the country to have received this designation. Whereas France currently has 573 river swimming areas, Italy has 73 and Germany has 38.

“It is incredibly disappointing to hear this cherished spot has failed bacteria tests; this is upsetting news for communities across the country who want to swim in their local rivers without risk to their health.

“We must keep up the pressure on Thames Water to keep untreated sewage out of our rivers."



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This story was written by Sophie Perry. She joined the team in 2021 as a digital reporter.

You can get in touch with her by emailing:

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