A stretch of the River Swale poses a “serious health risk” to humans and pets, a meeting heard, with the most recent data from citizen scientists revealing worrying results. 

The quality of the river water has sparked concerns in Richmond for the last few years, with the Save Our Swale campaign group set up to call for improvements. 

The most recent testing data from Dr Keith Thomas, a citizen scientist, focuses on samples taken from September 2023 to April 2024, and found that the stretch of the Swale at Brompton contained a “worryingly high” level of bacteria, including E.coli.

According to Dr Thomas’s data, water samples at Brompton contained an average of 101,000 coliform bacteria per 100ml of water – 100 times higher than the 500-1,000 coliform bacteria threshold the Environment Agency requires for water to be considered safe to bathe in.

The coliform tests in each location in Richmond The coliform tests in each location in Richmond (Image: DR KEITH THOMAS)

In comparison, other parts of the River Swale, including at Richmond Falls and Culloden, showed 2,400 and 3,000 average coliform bacteria respectively; emphasising the “worrying trend” seen at Brompton. 

Revealing the data on Saturday at a Save Our Swale meeting in Richmond, Dr Thomas set out his research, which included looking at the flow, colour, foam and debris of the samples – and also found that Brompton had a total bacteria average of 242,000 per 100ml of water; 180,000 more than any other location.

He said: “Brompton shows the worst levels of our data set – which shows a serious health risk for anyone that enters the water at Brompton.

“We have been collecting data for several years – and it shows the worrying trend of pollution in the River Swale.

“We have looked at pollution from the Easby Treatment Works, and we’re monitoring the levels of bacteria from that.”

All the overflow incidents in and around RichmondAll the overflow incidents in and around Richmond (Image: DR KEITH THOMAS) Alongside the data on bacteria, Dr Thomas and co-founder of the Save Our Swale group, Deborah Meara, noted that 1,791 hours of raw sewage had been dumped in the River Swale in Richmond in 2023.

The River Swale at BromptonThe River Swale at Brompton (Image: LIZ WHELAN)

Deborah added: “Water companies rely on it being unseen – it looks beautiful from the surface, but underneath, there is sewage and pollution in the Swale.

“We need to stop this damaging trend – and battle back to save our Swale for the next generations.”

A picture of the treatment works at EasbyA picture of the treatment works at Easby (Image: DR KEITH THOMAS)

Elsewhere in the meeting, people heard from Mark Barrow, who has been underwater filming and documenting rivers for the last 35 years.

“Brompton is a high-risk level,” Mr Barrow told the meeting. “To protect myself – I have a full disinfection tank – I wouldn’t ever enter the river without a dry suit and some form of disinfectant. I wouldn’t swim in the river – I wouldn’t risk it.”

The chair of Richmond and District Angling Society, Ron Wood, spoke about the impact pollution of the Swale has had on fish populations and fishing. 

He noted that the society had introduced 4,000 fish into the river over the last 12 months, with the Environment Agency doing the same, with the hope that the fish will once again populate the length and breadth of the Swale. 

Mr Wood said: “Anglers are trying to help where they can – we always fish and put the fish back, never take from the river. We have introduced fish into the Swale and plan to do so again. 

“And we are carrying out patrols of where we can improve the situation, and where we can help. We’re working with the Environment Agency and doing all we can to help the future of the River Swale.”

Responding to the issues set out by Save Our Swale, a Yorkshire Water spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving our region’s rivers and were disappointed about the number of discharges in 2023.

“This increase is due to the wet weather experienced in the 12-month period, which included 11 named storms, and which the Met Office named 2023 the sixth wettest year since its records began in 1836.

“Overflows operate during prolonged or heavy rainfall and multiple storms in close succession can lead to increased discharges due to the storm capacity being used up.

“Our teams worked hard throughout 2023 to reduce discharges as part of our commitment to improve the operation of our network.”

The water company said its work includes a £180m programme to reduce discharges across the region, including into the River Swale, by April 2025.

It also said that work is in progress on 62 projects that will reduce discharges from some of the most frequently operating overflows.

The spokesperson added: “Making this investment is by no means a quick fix, and we understand that our customers are interested in how frequently our storm overflows are operating now.

“To increase transparency with our customers, in April this year, we launched an interactive 
map with near real-time discharge data, showing the live status of the overflow and when they last discharged to the watercourse.

“It is also important to note that river quality can be affected by many potential sources – for example, through farming activity. 

“Our river health improvement team are working with several local groups, such as the Yorkshire Dales Rivers Trust, to identify possible sources of pollution.”

An Environment Agency spokesperson added: “We are determined to improve the quality of our waters and are holding the water industry, farmers and anyone who pollutes our rivers to account on a scale never seen before.

“The River Swale and its surrounding catchments are affected by a number of complex factors and our team of specialist local officers work closely with others to address this challenge.

“This includes carrying out inspections of local sewage works and farms to ensure that they are compliant with their permits to prevent pollution from happening.”