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British Canoeing gives evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee

British Canoeing was pleased to be able to present oral evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, as part of an inquiry into water quality in rivers. 

On Wednesday, 21st April, Places to Paddle Manager, Ben Seal appeared alongside Jane Nickerson, Chief Executive of Swim England and Feargal Sharkey, active rivers campaigner and angler. During the hour long session, they were asked a range of questions by a panel of MP’s on how pollution in our waterways is affecting recreational users.

On being asked about how concerned paddlers were about the quality of water in our rivers, Ben Seal commented:

I think paddlers have always been conscious of the hazards posed by water in our rivers, but now concern is really increasing, the more data becomes available. We know that human health is being put at risk by the transmission if diseases in raw, untreated sewage, the sheer scale of that threat is only now being uncovered and understood.

– Ben Seal, Places to Paddle Manager

He went on to share a number of stories from around the country, citing examples on the River Leam, The Yorkshire Derwent and the River Trent in Burton and Nottingham.

“Waterways provide opportunities for millions of people to be active and unwind, to relax and play, but they are not being treated the same as other recreational amenities...it would be utterly inconceivable to accept the same level of health risk on our football pitches, or cricket pitches or footpaths”.

The session focussed mainly on the discharge of raw sewage into rivers, which was recently featured in a BBC Panorama documentary. There has been widespread coverage of the latest data released by the Environment Agency, showing that for more than 3 million hours of  raw sewage was discharged from ‘CSO’s (Combined Sewer Overflows) into rivers in England during 2020.

Storm overflows were designed to be used during extreme weather to prevent sewers becoming overloaded with a combination of sewage and rainwater, releasing diluted wastewater into rivers rather than letting it back up into people’s homes. However in recent years climate change has led to increased rainfall and water infrastructure has not kept pace with development growth over decades.

The data relating to discharge of untreated sewage can be viewed on the Rivers Trust website, through their ‘Is My River Fit to Swim in?’ portal.

Earlier this year the Storm Overflows Task Force  agreed a long term goal to eliminate harm from storm overflows and water companies agreed to make real-time data on sewage discharges available at bathing sites all year round, another step forward, however at present there is only one inland river bathing waters site, the River Wharfe at Ilkley.

But British Canoeing and many other campaigning groups feel that urgent action is essential to protect human health.

Asked about the data that is available to recreational users, all three panelists agreed that it is inadequate and must be a priority for water companies to improve. Ben Seal said

I don’t know anyone who checks last year’s weather report, to decide if they should go out into the mountains tomorrow. Water users are at a massive disadvantage when they are trying to make informed decisions about where and when to paddle.

– Ben Seal, Places to Paddle Manager

When asked what needs to change, Ben suggested that one simple thing the Secretary of State could do is compel water companies to make data available real time and understandable for all water users. Currently, Surfers Against Sewage provide an excellent ‘Safer Seas’ service, where users can check the quality of water around the UK coast. However the level of data is not yet available for inland waterways. 

In the session prior to British Canoeing, the MP’s on the Committee heard from Professor Peter Hammond, an expert on CSO data analysis, Pete Lloyd, a former EA employee and Professor Becky Malby who has been instrumental in securing the UK’s first river designated under bathing water standards in Ilkley. 

Full coverage of the evidence session can be found here (@15:40)

The issue of water quality in our rivers is something that British Canoeing recognises as a growing concern amongst its community. In order to minimise the risk of becoming ill, paddlers are recommended to:

  • Be aware of the location of CSO’s  in any particular body of water, details of which can be found on Rivers Trust website, through their ‘Is My River Fit to Swim in?’ portal.

  • Never drink water from a river or lake.

  • If contaminated water has been swallowed, refer to your doctor with full details of the incident.

  • Always shower after contact with the water.

  • Wash hands thoroughly and shower if necessary before eating or drinking.

  • Cover cuts and abrasions (including blisters) with waterproof dressings.

  • Wear suitable footwear, particularly when launching or landing, and particularly if it is necessary to wade into the water, to prevent direct contact with the water and protect the feet from cuts and abrasions.

  • Avoid splashing river or lake water onto your face or body in order to cool down (take a bottle of tap water with you for this).

  • Hose down all equipment after outings to remove any potential contamination.

  • Wash, and thoroughly dry, any contaminated clothing before re-use.

  • Be aware of the symptoms of water-borne diseases and always seek medical advice if unsure.


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