Rowing in the Wear: how clean is the water?

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Sewage is unpleasant stuff. When it is pumped into rivers, it can be the cause of serious illnesses in humans, and have grim effects on river ecosystems. The amount of sewage spilling into Durham’s River Wear has increased, in step with the large increase that has been observed across the UK.

After a rower on Oxford Men’s rowing team claimed that a member of his club’s sickness — and therefore the team’s defeat — in the Oxbridge Boat Race had been impacted by increased levels of pollution in the River Thames, Palatinate has sought to understand how heightened levels of river pollution may affect students who row on the River Wear.

According to Palatinate’s analysis of data recently published by the Environment Agency, the number of sewage spills has increased in the local section of the River Wear from 2551 hours to 5360 hours between 2022 and 2023, a 110% increase — this is a similar increase to the 105% seen across the UK. Although this is the first year with a full roll-out of monitoring stations on all outlets across the UK, all outlets in Durham have been monitoring sewage spillages since 2020.

These spillages can contain untreated household waste, contributing to a heightened risk to human health. Guidance from the UK Health Security Agency says river water can contain microorganisms that increase the risk of developing stomach bugs, as well as respiratory, skin, ear and eye infections.

Although most diseases contracted from polluted water can be mild, some can be more alarming — the British Rowing Medical Panel has published guidance on Weil’s Disease, which originates from a strain of E.coli bacteria present in polluted water, saying it can cause severe liver and kidney problems.

A spokesperson from Northumbrian Water told Palatinate that, “During periods of heavy rainfall, a wide range of factors can affect water quality, several of which are outside of out operations and networks, such as highways and faming. Our assets operate in line with permits issued by the Environment Agency.

“Storm overflows play a critical role in protecting customers and properties from flooding in exceptional rainfall such as last year when we had one of the wettest years on record leading to an increased number of discharges, following a reduction the previous year.

“We have invested heavily in upgrades to our wastewater network in the last two decades, and we continue to do so. In total, more than £80 million of investment is targeted towards improvements related to storm overflows in our current 2020-25 operating period and we plan an unprecedented investment of £947m between 2025 and 2030.”

We are obviously worried about the water quality as there is the possibility of getting ill from sewage [… the river] does seem to have been murkier this year compared to last year

Member of a college boat club

We contacted all of the University and college boat clubs about their experiences with water quality in the river.

A former captain of St. John’s College Rowing Club, who fell into the river, told Palatinate: “Despite following advice to down a can of Coke I became violently ill by the evening [of] the following day. By the fifth day, being bed bound with no improvement I was advised to get an emergency GP appointment and required to take a course of antibiotics.”

Tom Bates, the Club Captain of Collingwood College Boat Club told Palatinate about his concern about water quality: “The most obvious sign of the poor water quality that I’ve noticed as a rower is the smell in summer.”

He continued: “As a sport we are powerlessly affected by poor water quality — rowing boats sit low in the water and the poorer quality/ cheaper boats that are most common among Durham College Rowing do not have ‘shoulders’ that stick out off the sides of the boat, protecting from splash from the sides.

“Coupled with the harsher, faster racing in summer where you are at full ‘sprint’, the amount of backsplash is greatly increased. I will often drink full mouthfuls of river water during each run down the racecourse during Durham Regatta.”

As a sport we are powerlessly affected by poor water quality — rowing boats sit low in the water and the poorer quality/ cheaper boats that are most common among Durham College Rowing do not have ‘shoulders’ that stick out off the sides of the boat, protecting from splash from the sides.

Tom Bates, Club Captain of Collingwood College Boat Club

Mr Bates also told us about one of his club members developing an illness, saying: “I had to phone an ambulance for her last year for a mysterious and fast onsetting stomach problem. The doctors were highly suspicious that it was due to her ingesting poor quality river water”.

A spokesperson for Durham Regatta said: “Water quality is certainly a concern that the Regatta takes seriously.”

“Medical provision will be on site during the Regatta and safety and rescue craft will be on duty during racing hours and able to respond to any incident. News They told us that: “There has been no evidence of rowers on the River Wear suffering illnesses such as those reported at the Boat Race”.

However, that emphasised that they followed, and would reaffirm British Rowing’s guidance, which includes mitigations for poor water quality, and the risk for competitors “contracting waterborne diseases”.

They continued: “We can’t control water quality, but water authorities can take action to reduce discharges into waterways that can threaten health.”

Another member of a college boat club said: “We are obviously worried about the water quality as there is the possibility of getting ill from sewage [… the river] does seem to have been murkier this year compared to last year.”

We all share the same ambition for healthy, thriving rivers, and we are committed to playing our part in improving our region’s rivers by working with our partners such as the Wear Rivers Trust and our regulators the Environment Agency

Northumbrian Water

When Palatinate spoke to Grey College Boat Club, they told Palatinate that although: “We haven’t had any specific incidents of poisoning from the Wear to my knowledge.” And, although they were aware of the possibility of contracting waterborne disease, they said: “we know it’s not ideal, but it won’t stop us from going out at the moment.”

The River Wear is not currently tested for the presence of harmful bacteria by the Environment Agency, as it only tests areas designated by the Government as ‘bathing water’. Instead, the river is monitored with a less stringent array of tests with the aim to protect fish and wildlife — the hazards to people who come into contact with the water are, therefore, unknown.

When the Agency last assessed the section of the Wear that flows through Durham, in 2019, it was found to have ‘moderate ecological status’, for which agricultural pollution and sewage discharge were found largely to blame. Fish counts in a nearby section of the Wear indicate a downward trend, of which river pollution is understood to be a major factor. Although parts of the Wear are affected by wastewater from abandoned mines, the section that passes through the city centre appears not to be affected.

Some in the industry cite the increased amount of rainfall in 2023 as the reason behind the increased amount of sewage discharged into rivers. As Britain carries both excess rainwater and household sewage through the same pipes, to prevent sewage backing up into homes, water companies are allowed to discharge untreated excess sewage into rivers during storms. In Durham, total rainfall increased from 655mm to 839mm, a 28% increase.

Sewage services in Durham are provided by Northumbrian Water, who told the BBC that they have plans to invest “over £80m” to reduce the “use of storm overflows”. Water companies across the UK promised in May last year to increase their investment in wastewater processing, yet this is likely to come at the expense of bill increases.

Northumbrian Water explained to Palatinate that “We all share the same ambition for healthy, thriving rivers, and we are committed to playing our part in improving our region’s rivers by working with our partners such as the Wear Rivers Trust and our regulators the Environment Agency.

“We are committed to protecting and enhancing coasts, rivers and watercourses in all areas of our operation and have proactively published a number of industry- leading pledges to generate further improvements in this area.

“Real progress is being made in improving monitoring and increasing transparency and we have launched our near real-time map showing discharges as they happen.”

Image: Will Dixon; CARTO; OpenStreetMaps; OpenMapTiles; Environment Agency; Measured in: Raw sewage discharge in Durham city in 2023, measured in hours.

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