The activists taking on England’s sewage-spilling water firms and winning

In the midst of outcry over sewage being discharged along England’s coastline, grassroots campaigners are achieving notable wins inland against water corporations

“Rational conversation with the authorities and water companies doesn’t work,” says Ash Smith. “What does work is people power, gathering hard evidence and putting it to the media, because as soon as the public knows, that’s when things change.”

Smith is the founder Windrush Against Sewage Pollution(WASP), an activist group based near the River Windrush of Oxfordshire. The news broke in June when the environmental nonprofit used their groundbreaking investigative work to highlight the group. Wild JusticeTo take Ofwat, the water regulator, to court over its failure to prevent water companies from dumping raw sewage into rivers. The crowdfunding campaign to cover the costs of the case reached its target of £40,000 in a single day.

It’s thanks to hardworking groups of concerned citizens like WASP that people have woken up to the fact that England’s rivers – and seas – are in such a poor state. This realization has led to a boom in the number communities taking matters into themselves, with transformative results.

It’s been a long time coming. For decades there has been a disconnect between the water crisis and people’s knowledge of it. But signs abound that we’re on the cusp of a movement that could turn around the fortunes of our rivers. It’s an issue that is now so important to the British public that the Liberal Democrats put resurrecting our rivers at the heart of their May election campaigns, and scored major gains from the Conservatives.

People were not aware of the toxic mix of pollutants that is contaminating our rivers up until recently. The figures speak for themselves: at the Environment Agency’s last assessment of water quality, published in 2020, every one of England’s rivers failed to meet legal standards for overall health.

Surprisingly, most dumping is legal. Water companies are allowed to dump untreated sewage into rivers or seas as long as they have already treated a certain amount of waste. 


Only two river bathing areas are designated in England. Image by Garry Yeowell/Getty

This is happening for a reason. Because the population is growing and weather patterns are changing, putting more strain on water companies’ sewerage networks. River groups say that water companies have chosen not to upgrade infrastructure and instead increased the amount of waste entering rivers, seas, and paying out large dividends. The industry claims that infrastructure upgrades are the key to stopping raw sewage dumping. However, it is estimated that the industry would need to spend billions of pounds to stop it.

Evidence that couldn’t be ignored 

Smith moved to the River Windrush, a tributary, of the Thames in 2013. He was shocked by the state of the river and started to ask questions of the Environment Agency but soon realised “that if I didn’t do something, and people didn’t do something, nothing would happen”.

WASP was a smart move. Using the skills of retired data scientist Peter Hammond, the group was able to show that water companies were dumping sewage into rivers when they were not supposed to by analysing the industry’s own data and coupling it with rainfall records and observable pollution. The Environment Agency has had its sewage monitoring budget cut, found WASP’s evidence and the resulting media coverage impossible to ignore. An extensive investigation was launched into illegal dumping.


Ash Smith at an Extinction Rebellion Protest at Port Meadow, Oxford in May

“The secret is out,” says campaigner Ned Wells. “Now everybody wants to know whether it’s in their stretch of river.”

Wells was part the group that secured bathing water status at a popular swimming location on the River Thames at Port Meadow, near Oxford in May. It is the country’s 2nd river bathing site. The Environment Agency is required to test the water for bacteria every day during the May-September bathing season.

A growing number of communities are realising it’s a nifty mechanism by which they can get information on the health of their river. The community can use this data to pressure polluters to clean up their act, and force the Environment Agency to do so. It is difficult to dispute hard evidence.

Protestors at Port Meadow swam and chanted ‘species, not faeces!’

It began when Claire Robertson, a narrowboat-dwelling wild swimmer alarmed at sewage dumping in the Thames, organised a ‘floatest’ – a floating protest – that involved “quite a few people floating through Port Meadow with all kinds of poop signs”, as Wells puts it. A petition calling for bathing waters status was quickly created and received around 5,000 signatures. The Oxford city council unanimously supported it.

“We met with Thames Water chief executive Sarah Bentley and sustainability director Richard Aylard,” explains Wells. It led to the formation and operation of the Oxford Rivers Project, where the community and water company joined forces to find a solution.

Thames Water was supportive of the bathing water bid, trained the project’s volunteers in how to collect water samples, and even funded Robertson to work on it part-time.


Grassroots campaign groups have an impact on other communities and inspire them to take a stand.

Thames Water is currently using Port Meadow to test a live alert system that will inform the community about river water quality in real-time. “By the end of the year we will do live notifications on all of our 468 permitted discharge points,” he says, adding that: “Any discharge of untreated sewage is unacceptable… We have to get that down as fast as possible.”

It has committed to a 50 per cent reduction in the total annual duration of spills across London and the Thames Valley by 2030, and within that, an 80 per cent reduction in “sensitive catchments” such as those hosting chalk streams, by investing in its wastewater infrastructure.

Port Meadow’s success followed in the footsteps of the trailblazing Ilkley Clean River GroupWest Yorkshire was the first region to be designated for a stretch on the River Wharfe in 2020. Until this point, none of England’s 417 bathing waters were located on rivers. France, on the other hand, has 1,300 of its 3,300 sites that include rivers and bathing lakes. This is a clear indication that clean, swimmable rivers can be achieved.

Water companies have been accused of dumping sewage into England’s waters this summer. Image: Benjamin Elliott

Karen Shackleton, a founding member of the Ilkley group, persuaded a local radio journalist to come and report on the pollution in the River Wharfe: “People went ballistic … nobody was aware it was happening,” she says. The story was picked-up by national media, and things really took off. The group decided to apply to be a bathing water status holder. This required a team of volunteers to count the number who were swimming in the river at least three times per day, and three times per week. “This was throughout the whole of the bathing season,” says Shackleton. “It was quite an undertaking.”

The river was granted bathing water status in 2021, but immediately failed to meet the standards. Masses of media coverage ensued, prompting Yorkshire Water to announce plans to invest up to £13m in its wastewater network and treatment work upstream of the bathing water site to improve water quality.

It’s a good development, but for Ilkley Clean River Group, the challenge is far from over. It is pressing for these announcements to make real improvements in water quality and speedily. “The positive thing is that when industrial pollution was reduced when heavy industry was shut down, rivers quickly recovered,” says Smith.

France boasts 1,300 swimming lakes and rivers. This proves that clean, swimmable rivers are possible.

That recovery can be dramatic. Parts of the tidal Thames were so polluted in 1957 that scientists from the Natural History Museum declared it “biologically dead”. There are sharks, seals, and seahorses today.

It’s an encouraging vision at a time when many people are aghast at the sight of sewage being discharged into England’s rivers and seas. If people keep gathering evidence, and using it to push for change, could we see a resurgence of swimming safety and the return of fish and invertebrates, along with the birds that depend on them? Communities could return their clean, healthy rivers and reap all the benefits they bring.


These are the wins so far 

  • The Environment Act 2021 requires the government to produce a plan by this September to reduce sewage discharges from water firms’ ‘storm overflows’ and create a report showing what is needed to eliminate them altogether.
  • The law also requires water companies to publish near-real-time data on sewage spillages and requires firms to monitor water downstream and upstream of storm overflows. This week, however, the same water companies were charged with dumping sewage. failing to monitor sewage discharge at British seaside resorts.
  • Thames Water has committed to a 50% reduction in the annual duration of sewage overflows from overflows by 2030 and an 88% reduction in sensitive catchments.
  • Anglian Water, Severn Trent and Severn Trent state that by 2030, their operations won’t be the reason rivers fail water quality standards. They will also reduce the amount of overflows they use to 20 per annum by 2025.
  • United Utilities committed to reducing sewage spillages by at least a quarter between 2020 and 2025.
  • Southern Water says it will reduce storm surges by 80 percent by 2030.

How to get a river/beach designated a swimming site

Anyone can apply to have their local waterway designated as a bathing spot. The most important thing is to show that it is a popular swimming spot by monitoring the number who use it during the bathing seasons (15 May to 30 Sept).

Information about facilities available at the site that facilitate bathing, such a toilet, changing facilities, cafes, and parking. Show evidence of consultations with local groups like bathers, residents of nearby towns, parish councils, community groups.

If the site has been designated, the Environment Agency can put in place plans to monitor and safeguard the bathing water and display current information about water quality at the site. Follow these steps to apply this link.

Help us continue to break down the bad news bias

Positive News is helping more people than ever to get a balanced view of the world – one that supports their wellbeing and empowers them to make a difference towards a better future. And as our audience and impact grows, we’re showing the rest of the media that good news matters.

But the UK’s cost of living crisis is affecting our income, with fewer people able to commit to a magazine subscription – which has traditionally been our main source of funding. Plus, printing and paper costs are on the rise.

We don’t want to put a paywall on our website, because we believe everyone should have the chance to benefit from good news. But we won’t be able to continue funding our online reporting without your help.

If you value what Positive News does and have the means to make a regular contribution, or a one-off donation, please consider becoming a Positive news supporter. We need 1,000 readers to contribute just £3 per month to get us through this challenging time.

Remember that we are a not-for profit and work only for you. All funds go towards our journalism.