It may seem a little paradoxical to suggest that what Irish rivers urgently require is more humans in them. We have, after all, a persistent habit of treating them as little more than dumping grounds for our toxic waste. The last thing they need, God forbid, is more of us.
But humans splashing in rivers may be their saving grace. It’s certainly worked for the River Wharfe, near Ilkley in Yorkshire, where locals formed a clean river group in 2018 to get the authorities to sort out the raw sewage that’s polluting the river and causing high levels of harmful bacteria in the water.
The group realised that if they could get “bathing site status” for the river, the authorities would be legally obliged to test the waters and inform the public of the results.
Once a bathing area is confirmed, local authorities have to test the waters between May and September and make the results public
The group needed to gather evidence for their application, so they counted the number of people who used the river for swimming, paddling and other related activities. The more humans in the water, the better.
(Caution must be exercised in river swimming: choose a locally known safe spot; beware of low temperatures, currents and submerged objects; never swim alone; and stay within your depth. For more, see watersafety.ie.)
They were successful and last December, a stretch of the Wharfe became the first-ever designated river bathing site in England. It won’t solve the problem overnight, but it has triggered a clean-up of the system, and will continue to shed much-needed light on the identity of the polluters, and hold them to account.
If it feels familiar, it’s because the same system is used for our coastal bathing spots. Ireland has 139 designated beaches and nine lake sites, and councils are inundated with requests from the public for new coastal sites to be formally identified.
But perhaps less well known is that rivers can also be proposed. Italy, for example, has 73 river bathing sites while France has a whopping 573. Ireland has none.
Sites are designated using a piece of EU law that protects our health and safeguards our waters against pollution. Once a bathing area is confirmed, local authorities have to test the waters between May and September (it’s unclear why testing isn’t required all year, given the growing number of indefatigable bathers during the chilly months) and make the results public.
They test for microbial pollutants called Escherichia coli and intestinal Enterococci, which come from faecal waste and can cause severe diarrhoea and vomiting when swallowed.
Rivers aren't just a resource for a select few; they're for everyone
If levels are high – or where nutrients cause excessive algal growth – then the site is restricted. Merrion Strand in Dublin, for example, is so polluted that last year it was declassified as a bathing site. More recently, Westmeath’s Lough Lene was closed because of a cyanobacteria bloom.
Pollution is often invisible, and what may appear serene on the surface can hide an ugly reality underneath. Nobody wants to splash about in faeces. By designating a site, local communities can participate in the process because the councils have to publish the tests results in real-time, along with the source of pollution. This transparency is one way to compel the authorities – and the rest of us – to clean up our waters.
The good news is that this system seems to be working for our coastal and lake bathing sites. Nearly all of our designated sites meet minimum EU standards, and 75 per cent of them are classified as excellent. Two bathing sites that scored “poor” in 2019 are now showing improvements.
We know from scientists, along with local knowledge, particularly from older citizens, that our major rivers aren’t well. They may appear to be in better shape than those in other countries, but since the vast majority of Europe’s rivers fail to meet even minimum standards, boasting about being top of a pretty filthy class sets a shamefully low bar.
If we want to get back to our historically high standards – and why wouldn’t we? – it’s time to pay attention to the alarming pace of deterioration of rivers, particularly those in the south and southeast. Perhaps the most tragic of all is the apparent fate of our Three Sisters: the Nore, Barrow and Suir, which have recorded high declines in water quality in the past few years, and continue to take a battering from nutrient pollution.
Raw sewage is still pumped into rivers, and the seepage of livestock waste and chemical fertilisers into waterways is an ever-escalating problem. But somewhat surprisingly, the authorities do not routinely test or formally monitor all our rivers for harmful bacteria. If they did, it’s a fair guess we’d wince at the results.
In Galway, a group of NUIG scientists recently tested rivers for harmful Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC) that live in the guts of animals and cause stomach and renal problems in humans, particularly children and older people. A large proportion of the rivers tested positive. STEC infections in Ireland are 10 times the EU average.
Lockdown has reminded us of the therapeutic benefits and sheer pleasure of plunging into watery liminal spaces together. Could the legal mechanism of bathing designations help our communities restore their struggling rivers?
After all, rivers aren’t just a resource for a select few; they’re for everyone, and that includes the vast array of species that depend on them for life. If an (as yet) unused bit of EU water law can nudge us towards their recovery, then it’s undoubtedly worth a go.