We are a group of Ilkley residents who were shocked at the way that raw sewage was being discharged into the river frequently, even in the summer months. Some of us had logged this happening regularly since February 2014 but could find no way of stopping it.

We discovered that watercourses all over the country are used by water companies to get rid of both raw and treated sewage effluent. This is happening even when the level of water on the river or stream is low and the effluent is being discharged onto dry gravel. This is apparently perfectly legal and the Environment Agency in England and Wales issues permits to water companies to allow them to do this. In so-called ‘storm’ conditions, it is legal to discharge raw, untreated sewage with all solids such as faeces, toilet paper, wet wipes, tampons and condoms straight into the water – or the gravel and sandy areas that have been exposed because the river is low. This is happening sometimes even when there is only relatively light rain and not when there is a real storm.

We formed a group to liaise with the relevant authorities and other interested organisations and held public meetings, met our MP and sent out press releases. We decided that one way to bring the problem to the attention of the public was to apply for bathing water status, which would require the Environment Agency to sample the water and test it for certain types of pollution. Part of the area we applied for is already visited by hundreds of people in the summer months but despite this was never been monitored to see if it was polluted or safe.

The Environment Agency’s advice was that no rivers or streams in the UK can be regarded as clean enough to swim in.


  1. In 2019 the Ilkley sewage treatment works discharged raw sewage into the river over 114 days. The Ilkley Clean River Group is campaigning to reduce this frequency so that the Storm Overflow only discharges raw sewage in extreme weather conditions, no more than three times a year. [note all – this is context to the section above about the frequency of spills]
  2. The Bathing Application demonstrated that on hot sunny days over 1000 people use the river at Ilkley for recreation
  3. Citizen science studies have shown that conditions for swimming in the designated stretch of the river in Ilkley are often good when river levels are low. Conditions are worst in wet weather when untreated sewage is discharged into the Wharfe from the Addingham pumping station four miles upstream. The water quality is always a risk to public health downstream of the designated site, which is still an area used for recreation by locals and visitors.
  4. Ilkley Clean River group has been 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.

Our Objectives

1. Stop Yorkshire Water Services (YWS) pumping solids into the River!

2. Stop sewage discharge outside storm conditions!

3. Get our sewage works upgraded to cope with the growing population and climate!

How do numbers of clean-safe bathing sites in the UK compare to Continental Europe?

Northern Europe

Netherlands.    33 rivers, 688 lakes
Germany.    38 rivers, 2021 lakes
Italy.    73 rivers, 822 lakes
France.    573 rivers, 1059 lakes

Europe Bathing
GB Bathing


0 rivers, 16 lakes
1 river, 16 lakes

How it started

You can listen to a podcast which includes Founder Member, Karen Shackleton, explaining just why the Group were established and how. It features an interview with Laura MacDonald, an advocate and enthusiastic wild swimmer. It also features Owen Wells, Local Councillor and wild swimming enthusiast.

Steve Fairburn and Kathleen Roberts complained to YWS and the EA In the early summer of 2018 but were largely ignored. They joined forces with Karen Shackleton who decided it was time for action. She recruited Becky Malby as a campaign leader and Rick Battarbee as a science adviser. Thus, The Ilkley Clean River Group was formed!

Becky Malby talks to Karen Shackleton, co-founder, about how it started :-

Part 2 of my interview with Karen Shackleton local resident and campaigner on the actual problem

As discussed , the issue did not begin or end in Ilkley. The effects of sewage discharges stretched downstream, at first witnessed, in Burley-in-Wharfedale. Further citizen testing and investigation found the same in villages up-river.

As we raised issues about the Wharfe at Ilkley we found that llkley Residents and Visitors didn’t know :-
1. That Ilkley Sewage Treatment Works (STW) discharges raw sewage into the Wharfe when it rains;
2. that manhole covers along the riverside often burst and spill raw sewage onto the footpath and into the river, and;
3. the river is not designated nor suitable, at times, in places, for bathing.

Holding the agencies and companies to account:

We wrote to all the Authorities accountable for the issues and Authorities that could offer support starting with DEFRA down to the Local Council and other action groups such as Green Ilkley: EA = Environment Agency; YWS = Yorkshire Water Services; DEFRA = Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Govt); ITC = Ilkley Town Council

Stating they are following a process of prioritisation. Seems to be dependent on our bathing water application which will take some months still. We have asked for a timeline.

Stating that they do not contest the UWWTD (it means the Ilkley plant is non compliant); Securing Monitoring at Ilkley (legally has to be in place by March), asking us to continue to report footpath problems.

YW REPLY Instigating regular monitoring; ongoing investigation of manholes; no reply on responsibility for public

The EA State that they are following a process of prioritisation. Seems to be dependent on our bathing water application which will take some months still. We asked for timeline.

It doesn’t appear that the EA understand that as tax payers they are accountable to us.

20 August 2019

Setting out the problems with the water quality

30th July 2019 requesting a plan for the upgrade at Ilkley by the end of September 2019, with details of securing clean water in llkley

Click here to read our letter asking for our local MP to explain. October 2021

The Campaign Approach

Here is a Blog explaining our approach:

Click the image to open

Report an incident

If you see an ingress or outflow to the river of concern to you e.g. discoloured water, effluent, solids of unknown constitution or if you see a drain or manhole overflowing then call the Environment Agency (EA) Hotline. They will want to know the location, if there is evidence of wildlife in peril or distress, if there is odour, so be as descriptive as you can. The number to dial is: 0800 80 70 60 Please let us know along with the incident number given by the EA. It would help if you could give the name of the person receiving your report.

It’s free… and important!

0800 80 70 60