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“Sewage scum” and “nasty infections”: Students plagued by deteriorating river quality

From the cancellation of regattas to health advisories against swimming due to sewage dumps, the once pristine rivers of Oxford are now increasingly unsafe. While local authorities are attempting to safeguard waterways, students are having to significantly change their activities on the water.

Current conditions

Only 14% of rivers in England meet internationally recognised ecological standards. The company which presently controls sewage in and around Oxford, Thames Water, consistently records hundreds of “sewage incidents” each year. According to Government data, the company has been given an amber rating for water quality for nine out of the last eleven years, including each year since 2015. Records of water levels, going as far back as 1995, indicate that periods of severe flooding or drought are becoming more common, with periodic and extensive floods causing considerable damage and disruption.

In Oxford, Castle Mill Stream continues to display dangerous levels of bacteria – despite being the only official bathing spot on the Thames. Since privatisation, infrastructure has been neglected, with no new reservoirs built since 1991. Estimates suggest that 20% of the system’s total water supply is lost to leakage. Howard Street was flooded for weeks in freezing conditions earlier last month, after a burst pipe went unrepaired by Thames Water from late January to February. 

Students on the water

Aside from the economic, ecological, and sanitary impact of this state of affairs, river quality has a major impact on student recreation. Oxford’s river system and the sports which make use of them have been central to student and faculty life in the University for generations, but the impact of inclement weather and unpredictable sewage discharges is increasingly felt by recreational societies and boating clubs across the city.

The sport perhaps most intimately affected is wild swimming. The founder and head of the club, Ellie Ford, told Cherwell that Oxford Wild Swimming has “experienced a massive number of cancellations due to unsafe conditions in the river”, cancelling over 80% of their group swims in Michaelmas 2022 alone. This, they argue, is due to “almost constant” sewage discharges from Cassington and Witney Sewage Treatment Works, which sit upstream from Port Meadow. The society’s representatives are critical of Thames Water’s handling of the situation, citing irregular reporting of sewage releases, and feeling as though they “can never be confident that [they] aren’t being exposed to sewage”.

Ford also emphasises that cancellations of planned group swims have a considerable impact on the mental health of students. Many rely on these activities as a form of stress relief and social connection. Group swims provide a valuable opportunity to relax, recharge, and connect with others.

James Evans, current president of the Oxford University Canoe Kayak Club, told Cherwell that “two or three sessions” were cancelled this year so far, due to sewage discharge on at least two occasions, and high water levels on another. He added: “To my knowledge we’ve never had a member get sick from the river in Oxford, but this has potentially happened at other sites.”

Likewise, the OUCKC’s former president, Max Muggleston, believes that water quality in the Isis “has deteriorated consistently over time”, attributing this to increased discharge rates from sewage stations at Stanton Harcourt, South Leigh, and on the Windrush, and recalls the club cautioning members to wash their hands after every outing.

Members of St. Catherine’s and St. Hugh’s College Boat Clubs corroborate these details, citing weather patterns and increasingly frequent red-flag warnings signalling dangerous currents as particular sources of frustration. One rower at St. Hugh’s points out that, while sewage does not often directly impact session planning, it remains a potential health risk due to the possibility of “nasty infections” in exposed cuts or sores, and disrupts students’ enjoyment of their time on the water.

Changes on the horizon?

Thames Water provides consumers with a storm discharge map, but acknowledges that “this doesn’t tell the full story” with regards to water quality, and has pledged to modernise and expand their supply and sanitation infrastructure. The company has “committed £1.6 billion of investment in our sewage treatment works and sewers over the next two years”, specifically dedicating £15 million to upgrades at the Witney treatment facility. They have also pledged a 50% reduction of discharges in the Thames Valley by 2030. 

The precise timetable for such changes remains unclear with both public and private partners pledging action in the face of an increasinlgly volatile climate. The environmental and economic fallout of sewage discharges and crumbling infrastructure is reason enough to demand a change, but the fallout on student life, on the mental health of student athletes, and on Oxford residents’ recreation only serves to emphasise how central the rivers are to life in this city.
As recent demonstrations and complaints show, in Oxford itself and its environs, popular sentiment is increasingly critical of the water management status quo. In addition to petitions and public opinion, the issue has caught the attention of local government and Members of Parliament alike. On 30th January Oxford City Council unanimously called for Thames Water to be taken back into public ownership, while Oxford’s MPs have pushed for action on the question of water quality. The UK Government, under pressure from Labour opposition, has also recently put in place legally binding targets regarding sewage dumping. These will come into effect by 2050.

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