This article was first published in The Oxford Blue magazine. The illustration is by Rosie Creighton.
The ecstasy of wild swimming is like looking at the world through a brighter lens. The cold and the energy and the silence. The unspoken comradery of you and other solo swimmers communicated in smiles. My friends often used to joke about excrement in the rivers where I boasted of swimming. And I knew, of course, this was a possibility – farmyard animals and alike. But never did I consider human excrement to be the principal pollutant. And neither did my friends.
Legally, water companies can discharge ‘raw, unfiltered sewage’ into rivers to prevent sewers being overwhelmed during storms. However in 2023 alone, raw sewage has been released into rivers around Oxford city for over 500 hours. This is not the water I want to swim in. Nor do the fish. ‘Treated sewage’ on the other hand is set free as an unstated norm after chemical and biological filtration. Notice the words ‘treated sewage’. It suggests the water released, even after filtration, is high in bacteria and pathogens and, critically, is still sewage – this effluent is not required to be sterilised unless there is a bathing spot or shellfish nearby. So ‘precious’ humans should not be exposed to the harmful bacteria while we bathe and yet the wildlife for which this water is a home, can be.
Treated waste water can cause male brown roaches to develop ovarian cavities, as well as alter their kidneys and immune system. These physiological changes are only preceded by the alluring temptation for fish to swim towards areas of waste water, as they are nine degrees warmer than the rest of the river – and with the highest level of contaminants. Releasing large concentrations of sewage into rivers increases nitrogen and phosphorus levels which stimulates the growth of algae blooms. This blocks out the light that plants need for photosynthesis. As the plants succumb to toxins, the bacteria consume plantal remains, reducing O2 levels in the river. Most aquatic insects rely on high O2 levels for their survival and as these are eliminated, the fish which prey on them also decrease in number. Ecological devastation caused by the shift in ecosystem can only be recovered in the case of acute exposure. Chronic pollution which wipes out a species prevents the ecosystem from recovering. A failure of regulation from the top has resulted in over 6000 illegal breaches and seven years worth of sewage release within the years 2010-2015 from just one waterway company. A bottom up approach is hence rising in the face of environmental injustice. The river Wye, for instance, was restored voluntarily by Dr Cyril Bennet who reintroduced mayflies from other rivers.
Despite massive fees of £90 million charged to Southern Water in 2021 for 51 guilty pleas to long term sewage breaches, illegal leaking of sewage is still a withstanding issue, making nature an unsafe place for communities and the surrounding ecosystem to exist. The extent of the problem cannot be sufficiently emphasised by figures alone. But do we really want to return to the reality of the 1800s where for decades the Thames provided a dumping ground for the capital’s waste? Consistent renovation of sewers is required for a growing population in towns and cities all over the UK.
Potential solutions include properly funding governmental organisations (Environment Agency), although these have been consistently undermined, due to being subjected to decades of budget cuts. Legal limits of financial returns that can be given to shareholders of OFWAT (water regulators) before investment in necessary waste infrastructure provides a further solution. With nature in crisis, no one should benefit from undermining environmental laws. Our rivers are not sewers. For many Oxford students they are a haven of tranquillity displaced far from academia. They are the respite of a challenging day. Many colleges use the rivers on a daily basis, for punting or rowing. For the wildlife of the waterways, they represent not simply a home but a stable community. Our blatant disregard is threatening their existence. And Oxford is rebelling.
Wolvercote Mill, north of Port Meadow, is only the second stretch of river to be given bathing status in the UK, and Oxford wants more. Bathing status prevents treated sewage being released and calls for the Environment Agency to check the quality of the water weekly during the summer season. Oxford Climate Justice Campaign has recently launched a petition to support Oxford river clean up. There is also a Greenpeace national petition with three objectives to enforce governmental action in river restoration: to properly fund government agencies; to give environmental agencies legal powers and authority; and to set more ambitious legal targets to clean up water quality.
Swimming in Oxford doesn’t sound half as delightful to me anymore. The moment of private exaltation has been cloaked in a toxic veil. But hopefully with further installation of bathing status in more areas, swimming will rightfully regain its position as an immersive portal to the natural world.