Environmental benefits of Bathing Water Designation

As an environmental charity (although too small to be registered with the Charity Commission), Cam Valley Forum is keen to see one or more short stretches of the Cam have a Bathing Water Designation because of the environmental benefits that it will bring. In Cambridge City, we think Sheeps Green is the most likely spot. South Cambs District Council are also actively investigating the feasibility of applying, following a council motion from Cllr Pippa Heylings in September 2022. We look forward to hearing what they decide.

Some people have expressed understandable cynicism about whether designation will actually make a difference, so we thought it would be useful to summarise our current understanding of why it is worth the effort.

Bathing Water Designation shines a light on the water quality at a specific site which puts polluters in the spotlight. Many of us, including Friends of the Cam and others have been campaigning about the poor water quality in the Cam for years, with frustratingly little result. However, designation results in official recognition. As we know the resulting water quality will almost certainly be “poor”, this will give legal teeth to our demands. This status will be displayed on the Swiminfo website, and at the site.

Once designation is granted the Environment Agency will test the water quality throughout the bathing season for Intestinal enterococci and Escherichia coli (E.Coli) Although in Cam Valley Forum we tested every few months in 2021-22 as volunteers, and Anglian Water are testing for us weekly from September 2022-23, the data is often a month or two old by the time we’re able to upload it our website. When the Environment Agency undertake testing for a Designated Bathing Water site, they upload the data to the swiminfo website within about a week. This will make it much more useful to those of us that care about the health of the river, and to swimmers deciding whether to swim. For example, here is the data that was displayed for Ikley in Yorkshire, on 26 May 2023. (The river at Ilkley was the first inland site to get Designation)

At the end of the bathing season the designated site will be given a classification of: Excellent, Good, Sufficient or  Poor. With our likely designation of “poor”, (which we understand would apply for the next year) designation is much more likely to deter, rather than attract new visitors. Ikley have seen no change in the number of swimmers in since designation, despite huge publicity. Swimming will still be allowed, so keen local swimmers will probably continue to swim, but they will be better informed about the level of risk.

Where the designation is “Poor”, the Environment agency is legally required to investigate to identify the sources of pollution. Although we’re doing what we can, they can do much more. For example, they can do DNA analysis to see if the source is human, animal or birds. Although we strongly suspect that the biggest single source is Haslingfield Sewage Works, this independent expert investigation will be incredibly helpful.

Once the source is identified, the Environment Agency will require improvements to be made to clean up. As part of the bizarrely complicated mechanism that regulates the water industry, this releases the OfWat funding that allows the work to be done. Robin Price Director of Quality and Environment for Anglian Water tells us: “Formal designation of a bathing water stretch provides us with a ‘driver’ for investment under the Water Industry National Environment Programme (WINEP) – our five-year environmental investment plan – which, if accepted by the Environment Agency should mean that Ofwat grant us the funding.  This investment could include the installation of disinfection at the treatment works and/or improvements to any storm overflows in the area upstream of the bathing water.”

He continued “Please feel free to report that you have Anglian Water’s full support of the application, and that we will be happy to provide a letter of support to Defra at the appropriate moment

In summary: Designation is no panacea, and we won’t see instant results, but, as at Ilkley it will help improve the water quality, which is something we’ve all been campaigning for.

This is why we’ve decided that its worth trying to get bathing water designation for at least Sheeps Green. We are liasing with South Cambs District Council, and Cambridge City Council about this.

To apply, the application will need to show that there is local support, so we are planning to do a formal consultation later in the summer. It will also need to show evidence that the site is currently well used by swimmers, so we will be counting the number of swimmers using Sheeps Green on at least 20 days during the peak swimming season.

If you would like to help with this, do get in touch with us info@camvalleyforum.uk

Cambridge Water reject Cam Valley Forum’s plea for a Hosepipe ban

At a packed AGM of the Cam Valley Forum (CVF) on 20th March, a resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority calling for a hosepipe ban to take effect from 1st July 2023. Why would the CVF want people not to use hoses in their gardens in high summer? 

During hot, dry summers our water consumption in Cambridge can increase by 30%.  This causes the Chalk springs and streams to dry up. The Cam becomes little more than an elongated pond, with the trickle over the weirs at Jesus Green being largely made up of the effluent discharged from upstream sewage treatment works. 

Almost all the water supplied to our homes and businesses is pumped from the ground water in the Chalk strata under us. You may think that with all the rain falling in the Cambridge area recently, these aquifers should be full to the brim. Well, no. According to even the April update the Environment Agency advised that Cambridge is still officially in drought.

Cambridgeshire’s Chalk streams are rare and wonderful. When fed from water-full aquifers, they flow at constant rate and constant temperature regardless of season or rainfall. We should value and protect them as passionately as we would urge Brazil to protect its rain forests.

Significant ecological harm has already been done, and, unless rapid action is taken to reduce abstraction, the situation is going to get very much worse, exacerbated by the rapid population growth in the Cambridge area and climate change.  There are proposals to transfer water from Grafham Water and to build a new reservoir near Chatteris, but it seems unlikely that new water supplies from these or any other significant sources will be available before 2032. 

Abstraction of groundwater could be reduced if we were to use water more sparingly. On average Cambridge residents use around 150 litres of water per person per day, much greater than the 50 to 100 litres per person per day which the World Health Organization says should be sufficient.  However the most effective way of reducing water consumption and making everyone aware of the need to save water is to impose a well-publicised hosepipe ban.

Cambridge Water have a Drought Plan that was only finalised in April 2022, however sadly this is not fit for purpose.  It states that it should be necessary to introduce a hosepipe ban not more than once in 20 years.  The reason behind their extraordinary complacency is that they calculate that they can meet their statutory obligation of keeping water flowing through our taps by sucking it out from deeper and deeper into our Chalk aquifers.  This may be true, however they also have a responsibility towards the environment, which is what their over-abstraction is harming.

They say that implementing a Hosepipe Ban from 1st July would be a deviation from their drought plan, and that they could not do this without the agreement of the Environment Agency and DEFRA.  So we asked them to start the process of getting agreements from all concerned, using the overwhelming evidence justifying it that we have provided.  After a letter to the CEO, Andy Willicott, and several emails and responses from his Strategy and Regulations Director, and a zoom meeting, it is apparent that Cambridge Water Company will not willingly do this.

To understand Cambridge Water Company we should look at how it has evolved.  In 1610 Hobson’s Conduit was constructed to bring Chalk spring water from Nine Wells into Cambridge.  In 1853 Royal Assent was granted to a ‘good honest company formed to supply the town with water’.  This was the origin of Cambridge Water, a once much-respected Company.  To meet demand, it abstracted from the Chalk aquifer, which had been thought to have a limitless supply of pristine water. However as more and more boreholes were created it became apparent that abstraction was affecting the water table and causing Chalk springs to dry up.  To counter this, in the 1980s, it was decided to pump water from the boreholes to augment the springs that had been harmed. This further reduced the level of the water table.  In 1990 the water industry was privatised and Cambridge Water was then bought and sold four times before becoming part of South Staffordshire Water PLC, which is based in Walsall, and is a subsidiary of SSW Finance Ltd.

Inevitably SWW Finance’s key objective is to make money to fund, amongst other things, shareholders’ dividends and bonuses for senior executives.  The more mains water supplied the more money is made. So, is our natural environment a victim of greedonomics?  CVF would hope not, and we are actively engaging with Cambridge Water Company regarding their Water Resources Management Plan (WRMP), which is currently out for consultation.  They have now agreed to re-appraise the triggers for action on droughts, and to try to reduce the delay between the trigger being activated and action being taken.  This would seem to indicate that they take their responsibility for the environment seriously.  They have engaged the management consultants Skewb Ltd to prepare a five-year plan for reducing water consumption.  However, the measures that are being proposed are most unlikely to keep pace with increasing demand due the area’s growth, or slow down the environmental damage that is being caused.  Cambridge Water need to wake-up to the climate emergency that the City Council declared in 2019. 

Gentle persuasion to reduce water consumption has too limited an effect.  Sadly, high-summer hosepipe bans will be needed if Cambridge Water is to begin to stem the deterioration of our precious Chalk spring fed streams between now and when reservoirs may start replacing boreholes.  We will also need to use water much more sparingly.

Michael Goodhart for Cam Valley Forum.

Cam Valley Forum’s 16 top tips for saving water.

City Councillors: please support a Bathing Water Designation application for the Cam

Cam Valley Forum urges Cambridge City Council to pledge to support a Bathing Water Designation Application for the River Cam at Sheep’s Green, because of the environmental benefits that it will bring.

This (shown in yellow) is the popular swimming stretch on council owned land, near the Lammas Land carpark, café, toilets and playground, Canoe Club, Learner Pool and Paddling pool. Subject to further consultations, we envisage applying for designation of the stretch from Hodsons Folly (just upstream of the footbridge) downstream to the popular childrens paddling area of The Rush. Our aim is to submit this in October 2023

A successful application would genuinely help clean up the Cam.

Cam Valley Forum has been campaigning for a Bathing Water Designation for the Cam at Sheeps Green since 2021. During the pandemic we carried out an initial consultation to understand the issues and counted bathers. Since then we have been monitoring the water quality, both as a citizen science project, and with Anglian Water. In September 2022 we were very pleased to see that Cllr Pippa Heylings’ motion about investigating a Bathing Water Designation was passed by South Cambs District Council.

A successful Bathing Water Designation application would have real benefits for both the environment and for residents.

As Surfers Against Sewage point out, “Bathing Water Designation shines a light on the water quality at a specific site which puts polluters in the spotlight. Once designation is granted there is a legal obligation for polluters to clean up their act and also a requirement that the government agency for your region tests the water quality throughout the bathing season. Your bathing water will be tested for Intestinal enterococci and Escherichia coli, otherwise known as E.Coli. At the end of the bathing season the designated site will be given a classification of: Excellent, Good, Sufficient or  Poor

If the quality of the water is “poor”, as our monitoring suggests the Cam will be, this will be publicised on the DEFRA swiminfo website (as in Oxford) This may deter some from swimming, but people need to know.

Importantly, the rating of “Poor” should also release the OfWat funding that will help fix the sources of pollution (we think Haslingfield Sewage Works is a major part of the problem).

We also think the City Council also has a moral duty to support an application. 

In summer hundreds of city residents a day enjoy swimming in the Cam, paddling in the Rush or jumping into the river at the Sheeps Green footbridge, while hundreds more enjoy the river on punts, kayaks, canoes and paddleboards, some of whom also fall or dive into the water at times.  We know wild swimming brings huge benefits in reducing stress, improving fitness and wellbeing and contact with nature. Importantly, its also free.  This is a vital source of recreation in our highly unequal city, with many city residents terrified about how they’ll survive the cost of living crisis.

Swimming at Hodsons Folly

A summer evening outside the Canoe Club

The Children’s Paddling Area at “The Rush”

Nevertheless we know the pollution level is frequently unsafe, and at times people become seriously ill. Swimmers at Newnham Riverbank Club further upstream and our rowing teams downstream are also affected. We think the City Council has a moral duty to support an application, both to inform swimmers about the state of the water, and because it will unlock the funding that will help provide a solution.

Although, during the pandemic, some were concerned that designation would result in swarms of visitors, we think this is most unlikely. Our likely rating of “poor” would be more likely to deter rather than encourage visitors.  Many other inland sites now have bathing water designation, including Oxford, the River Deben in Suffolk, the Serpentine in London and several Country Parks. Cambridge would just be one of many designated sites.

Surely we can’t let Oxford outdo us in taking serious action to clean up our river?

Cam Valley Forum’s 16 top tips for saving water.

  1. Go to www.cambridge-water.co.uk/saving-water and join GetWaterFit, the interactive on-line tool that provides advice and from which you can order free water-saving products.
  2. If your water supply is not metered, apply to have a free smart meter installed.  This gives an incentive to save water and is likely to save you about £150 pa on water charges.
  3. Don’t flush every time you pee- ‘If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down!’
  4. Reduce the quantity of water used by WC cisterns.  If you have dual flush, use the lesser flush whenever appropriate.  If not, put a hippo in your cistern:  https://www.hippo-the-watersaver.co.uk/.
  5. Fit aerators to taps. These add tiny soft bubbles that reduce the flow of water by about half while maintaining the water pressure, they can be fitted to most taps and are inexpensive.  The water feels nicer and soaks better. https://www.bestproductsreviews.co.uk/tap-aerators
  6. Have brief showers instead of baths.  https://www.bestproductsreviews.co.uk/water-saving-shower-head has an excellent choice of shower heads that use much less water by aerating the water to give a better soaking shower.
  7. Don’t run the tap when brushing teeth.
  8. Only set-off the dishwasher when it is full or nearly full. 
  9. Use a bowl in the sink when washing-up manually. Then use the water for plants instead of pouring it down the drain.
  10. When buying dishwashers and washing machines select ones that are water efficient.  For example, energy star-rated dishwashers use about two thirds of the water that average dishwashers do.
  11. Install water butts with drain downpipe connectors and water plants with rainwater.
  12. When the water butts need refilling empty bathwater into them. 
  13. Take prompt action to have any leaky appliances in the house, such as dripping taps or overflowing cisterns, repaired or replaced.  Report any leaking water mains to the Cambridge Water Company on 01223 706050.
  14. Engage in consultations with schools and businesses to encourage them to reduce their water consumption.
  15. https://www.waterwise.org.uk/save-water/   is a helpful website that looks at effective ways to reduce water consumption.
  16. Assuming a hosepipe ban is not in place, please use your hosepipes sparingly.  Aim the hose at the base of plants most in need of water, and water them in early morning or evenings when water will soak into the ground rather than evaporating into the air.

Cam Valley Forum calls for Cambridge Water to impose a Temporary Use Ban from 1 July

The following motion was presented to the Annual General Meeting of Cam Valley Forum, held on 20th March 2023

In the face of drought, as is still declared by the Environment Agency, and to protect the aquifer sources of our ailing Chalk streams, the Annual General Meeting of the Cam Valley Forum calls on the Cambridge Water Company to act responsibly by instigating Temporary Use Bans from 1st July 2023.

More than 50 members present discussed the reasons for, and implications of this motion and then voted overwhelmingly in favour of it. 

We set out below the reasons for doing this

The need to conserve water-

The failure of the Chalk aquifer to adequately recharge following last summer’s drought is evident from the Environment Agency hydrology reports and, despite recent heavy rain, we are still in drought measures.  We live in an area that has the least rainfall in England and yet our population is expanding more rapidly than elsewhere.  To meet demand, Cambridge Water Company (CWC) is pumping too much water out of our chalk aquifer and this causes our precious chalk springs and streams and village ponds to dry-up.  The current situation is not sustainable, and significant damage is being done to the area’s biodiversity.  We support CWC’s proposals for the new Fen Reservoir, however this will not be in place until after 2035, and so we must find ways to conserve water from now until then.

Raising awareness-

Cambridge Water’s bills include the ‘Waste not one drop’ message and the Cambridge Water website gives advice and support on how to save water, however consumers are still using around 140 litres of fresh water each day and the usage of water increased by an estimated 25% in last summer’s drought.  The most effective way to make people aware of the need to use water sparingly is to impose a Temporary Use Ban (hosepipe ban).  This is justified as a means of helping our depleted aquifer to recover and preventing environmental harm.

We and other local groups, will be broadcasting and publicising the implications of the Environmental Emergency that we are facing and calling on Cambridge Water Company (CWC) to impose the TUB.

Avoiding delays in implementing a TUB-

The UKWIR’s code of practice when considering how to implement temporary use restrictions is flawed!  This is because it takes a minimum of 5 weeks for a TUB to be implemented after the need for it has been triggered.

This delay meant that TUBs were imposed much later than they should have been, for example Yorkshire Water imposed theirs between 26th August and 6th December 2022. The more stringent Non-Essential Use Ban (NEUB) takes 3 months to implement, and so if this summer sees a very severe drought and the justification for a NEUB is triggered in August, it will not be imposed until November!  Water Authorities need to be proactive and anticipate the need for a TUB well in advance.   The justification for the CWC TUB is the need to allow the depleted aquifer to recharge. So we suggest that internal communication and governance, and external communication with the Environment Agency, regional groups, and neighbouring water companies should happen this May.  The 21 days for comments, to include at least 14 days for representations to be made, could then take place at the start of June. The drought management team could then consider representations from individuals or groups in a fair and even‐handed manner, and any decisions made could be communicated to both the individuals or groups and the public before the end of June.  This would allow the TUB to be announced through local press and media in late June ready for implementation by not later than 1st July 2023.

Cambridge Water Drought Plan is not fit for purpose-

Cambridge City Council declared a climate emergency in 2019, and the lack of water is certainly one of the most influential factors in the formulation of the emerging Greater Cambridge Local Plan.  Why in the light of this, is Cambridge Water’s published level of service is ‘to introduce a temporary use ban or TUB on water use on average not more than once in 20 years’?  Do CWC not envisage taps running dry as water is pumped out from deeper and deeper into the aquifer?  Might this suggest that CWC is not sufficiently meeting the obligations to our natural environment as defined by Water Resources East? 

The CWC Drought Plan states that it is not until Drought Trigger 2 is reached that TUBs would be considered.  At Drought Trigger 2 CWC expect to be experiencing medium severity drought without sign of immediate recovery or lessening of impact.  The impact of such drought conditions would be compounded by the damage to the aquifer sustained by abstraction during previous years’ droughts.  The procedure that requires the lapse of 5 weeks from that trigger point until a TUB can be enforced is not fit for purpose.

We have written to CWC informing them of this motion, and urging them to to work with us in justifying a TUB to be imposed by not later than 1st July 2023, to enable some recharge to our depleted aquifer. 

We received the following reply on 5 April

AGM and Annual lecture 20 March 2023 6:30pm-9pm

We are delighted to say that David Aldridge, Professor of Zoology, of St. Catharine’s College, has accepted our invitation to be our speaker on 20 March.

This is an in-person event, in the  David Attenborough Building, Pembroke St, Cambridge CB2 3QZ

We look forward to hearing how his ideas may apply to the Cam system.

David’s work focuses on applied freshwater ecology, with emphasis on bivalve molluscs. His particular interests are the conservation of rare species and threatened ecosystems, the biology and control of invasive species, and the use of biological processes to develop sustainable remediation and monitoring programmes for degraded waterbodies.   A considerable part of his work involves collaboration with the water industry, government agencies and NGOs, and these collaborations provide a significant part of his research funding. 

Download details here

Visiting: To get to the David Attenborough building, enter the site through the Pembroke Arch on Downing Street and continue straight past the Museum of Zoology. There is lift access opposite the bike racks. Contact CCI for more information.

Picture : Keith Heppell

Help shape North East Cambridge

Interesting free “festival” happening this weekend (Saturday and Sunday) to help shape the environmental aspects of the plans for the current sewage works site, ie North East Cambridge

Looks like an interesting opportunity to meet with the developers’ sustainability experts, to learn and influence the development


U+I and TOWN, together with Anglian Water and Cambridge City Council, will host a weekend festival of talks, workshops and family activities to help shape plans for the Core Site, North East Cambridge.

The event will take place on Saturday 29th October between 10am – 5pm, and Sunday 30th October between 11am – 4pm and you can drop in whenever you wish. 

Extracts from the programme

1pm Saturday Workshop: Design a neighbourhood fit for the future: Join Useful Projects to discuss building a neighbourhood at the Core Site that is fit for this and the next century.

2pm Saturday ‘Living alongside nature’: LOLA, the Core Site Landscape architects, will discuss landscaping principles and how we actively design for nature.:

3pm Saturday Workshop: Design a place where humans and nature thrive: Join LOLA landscape architects and Kjellander Sjöberg architects to explore how we can create places where both humans and nature thrive

4pm Saturday Workshop: Design a water conscious place: Useful Projects will present approaches to minimising water use as part of a holistic approach to sustainable development

Details and booking here https://coresitecambridge.co.uk/festival/

New tool for removing Himalayan Balsam

June and July is the time to remove the invasive Himalayan Basam, when the plants are easy to spot, but the explosive seed heads haven’t yet formed.

It looks pretty, but spreads rapidly along rivers and crowds out everything else. We’re working with the Wildlife Trust to remove it from Bourne Brook, Byron’s pool, and a few other spots, before it infests all of Cambridge.

It needs to be removed cleanly from the base, either by pulling it up together with its roots, or cutting it off below the first node.

We’ve discovered that a pruning saw on one of our telescopic Wolf Garten rake handles works really well!

If you would like to join a working party and help, do contact us.

Sewage overflows increasing

The data thats just been released by the wonderful Rivers Trust, shows a concerning and increasing duration of Sewage Overflows from our local Sewage Treatment Works into the Cam and Rhee.

Haslingfield still has a high level of sewage overflows, although this may be due to problems with a sensor being incorrectly positioned. As the sensor was relocated in September 2021, shortly before Cam Valley Forum’s vist, we hope to see a very much reduced duration of overflows in 2022.

Melbourn overflows are increasing worryingly, which maybe explains why we saw very high levels of E-coli in the River Mel just downstream of the Sewage Works when we tested it on 19 January 2022. Anglian Water say this is due to “Ground water inundation”, but the River Mel Restoration Group are right to be concerned.

Concerningly, over the last 3 years, the duration of Sewage Overflows from Cambridge Riverside has been steadily increasing, although from a low level.

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