THE River Wharfe in Ilkley is the first in the UK to gain bathing water status, the Government has announced today.

The area of the river which runs between Ilkley Main Bridge and Beanlands Island will be added to the list of bathing waters in England from 2021.

It follows a public consultation by DEFRA which ran from August 7 to October 2. It was prompted by an application from the Ilkley Clean River Group, who want to ensure the river - which can attract over a thousand people on sunny days - is fit to paddle and swim in.

Responses to the consultation were received from a wide range of interested parties across the country, including Ilkley residents, NGOs, conservation groups and Yorkshire Water.

In total there were 1,073 replies, the largest response to date for a proposed bathing water designation, with 998 of respondents in favour of making the site a designated bathing water area.

The new status means that the Environment Agency will regularly take samples from the river to assess whether action is needed to cut bacteria levels, helping to ensure the water is cleaner and safer for swimmers, and improve the Wharfe’s water quality. Monitoring will begin from May 2021.

Today’s announcement comes as Yorkshire Water confirmed a new partnership to improve water quality in the River Wharfe, bringing together the Environment Agency, Bradford Council, NFU, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and landowners upstream of Ilkley.

It has also set out plans to reduce storm overflow discharges into the river by 20 per cent, increasing the use of smart tech to predict and prevent pollution incidents.

Environment Minister Rebecca Pow said: “The residents of Ilkley and the surrounding area have shown their overwhelming appreciation for the River Wharfe as an asset to enjoy and protect. I am delighted that this stretch of river will be the first river to host a designated bathing water site.

“Unfortunately, we all know that water quality won’t change overnight. It will take time and we need farmers and businesses to commit to achieve the necessary improvements. I am pleased to see Yorkshire Water stepping forward with new proposals today to help move things in the right direction.”

A spokesperson for the Ilkley Clean River Group said they were over the moon with the decision.

"This is a significant environmental landmark as a step towards cleaning up the river so that it is fit for people and wildlife, and we hope that more designations at rivers in the UK will follow," they said.

"This application came from the town residents, represented by Ilkley Clean River Group, concerned about the levels of pollution in the river. The application is supported by Ilkley Town Council, Bradford Council, and Yorkshire Water.

"Designation is for a site on the river which is popular with local people and visitors. It means that from 2021 the Environment Agency will be required to test the water regularly during the year to determine the level of faecal pollution at the site. Bradford Council will then be required to provide that information to the public."

They added: "We are concerned that designation does not stretch to the area most popular with local children, near the sewage treatment works where the pollution continues to be a danger to public health. We will be re-applying for this area to be designated next year. We continue to campaign for Yorkshire Water to put up signage in that area to warn people about the danger.

"We continue to campaign for Yorkshire Water to discharge untreated sewage into the river only in exceptional weather conditions. We expect the designation to trigger a clean up of the sewage system, including investment in the sewage infrastructure."

Ilkley Clean River group is now working with Ilkley Town Council and Bradford Council to identify how the riverside should be managed to secure a safe environment for people who visit - this includes facilities and water safety.

Ben Roche, director of wastewater at Yorkshire Water, said: “The health of our rivers is an issue that has really captured the attention of the public recently. This, combined with the impacts of climate change mean we need to look at what we want our rivers to be like in future.

"Bathing water status puts the focus on the public health aspects of river quality, but we also need to look at the bigger picture to ensure the wider environmental health of the river is addressed. We hope this partnership on the Wharfe will play an important part in helping to improve the health of the river for both people and wildlife.”

Cllr Alex Ross-Shaw, Bradford Council’s executive member for regeneration, planning and transport, said: “We’re delighted that the River Wharfe has been granted the UK’s first bathing water status. This partnership will look at a wide range of issues relating to the River Wharfe and we look forward to continuing to work with partners on improving the environmental benefits of the river for everyone.”

Martin Christmas, area environment manager for the Environment Agency in North Yorkshire, said: “This announcement is an important milestone for the Yorkshire region and its river users, and a nationally significant one as it is the first designated river bathing water in the country.

"We know that initial progress won’t happen overnight, but the partnership element of the programme is crucial, with many organisations working closely together.

"We will be monitoring the river and collaborating with our bathing water partners on this landmark project.”

The Environment Agency has been monitoring at bathing water sites on the coast and at certain lakes since the 1990s, and in this time there have been significant improvements to water quality.

In 2019, 98.3 per cent of England’s bathing waters met the minimum bathing water standard and for the first time since the relevant regulations were brought into force, more than 70 per cent of bathing waters achieved the highest standard.