The Save the Deben campaign has achieved a significant milestone in their efforts to secure ongoing water quality monitoring along the River Deben. The Waldringfield stretch of the river has just received official Designated Bathing Water Status (DBWS).
The River Deben (pronounced dee-ben) in Suffolk has long been popular with wild swimmers, but in recent years, it’s seen a resurgence. Wild swimming is the practice of swimming in natural bodies of water such as rivers, lakes, and seas, rather than in man-made pools. It is a growing trend with many people discovering the benefits of swimming outdoors and reconnecting with nature. The problem is that so many rivers are now polluted with sewage, they represent a health hazard to wild swimmers. Now campaigners have found a solution.
Save the Deben is the brainchild of Caroline Page, a Woodbridge county councillor and a long-time wild swimmer, and Visual Artist Ruth Leach, a swimmer and kayaker. The initiative is not about attracting swimmers to the area, their Facebook page stresses, but getting the river cleaned up. This is due to the designation placing a legal obligation on both the government and industry to prevent pollution.
Caroline expresses her excitement after receiving the confirmation from Defra. “This is excellent news for East Suffolk’s river environment and water-users alike. As a direct consequence of Waldringfield being awarded DBWS, that stretch of river will be monitored weekly for water quality by the Environment Agency. It will be carried out during this summer’s official bathing season, from May 15th until September 30th.”
The monitoring will help to establish a government-recognised external picture of how polluted the river environment is, which will allow campaigners to hold Anglian Water to account. The Deben is very familiar to Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey as the estuary runs through her Suffolk Coastal constituency.
Angela Soames, co-founder of the Waldringfield-based wild swimming group Deben Bluetits, also acknowledges this goal saying, “It means the river will have to be cleaned up, which will not only benefit us as wild swimmers but all river users, and more importantly the wildlife and river environment.”
Testing and monitoring
The Environment Agency will test the water for pollutants such as E. coli and prepare an initial bathing water profile. Suffolk County Council will then be responsible for providing the public with information about the water quality. Signs at the site will clearly display real-time water status – one of four levels from ‘excellent’ to ‘poor’.
Of over 600 designated bathing waters around the country, Waldringfield joins only two inland water sites – and the first stretch of tidal estuary – to receive this bathing water status, making it a unique achievement for the Save the Deben campaign. Helen Whitehead of nearby campaigners Safe Water in Manningtree (SWiM) in north Essex, says she’s “inspired” by the Save the Deben campaigners and hopes they’ll make their own application soon.
Gaining the designation wasn’t easy, with most applications being turned down. “It took hours of hard work,” campaigner Ruth explains. “We did bather counts, a public consultation, lobbying of support and paperwork, which have paid off.”
Their local consultation demonstrated usage of 106 bathers daily – including swimmers and children bathing or paddling in the water – over 20 days during last summer’s official bathing season.
Not resting on their laurels, the campaigners will now turn their attention to Woodbridge, three miles upriver from Waldringfield. Save the Deben did also submit a DBWS applications to Defra for Woodbridge in 2022. “The two applications were because of the logistical issues of a tidal estuary,” Ruth explains. “There is a large population of recreational river users as well as the outlet sites for the two sewage treatment works. Swimmers are swimming in areas where combined sewer overflows can take place and where treated sewage is draining into the river.”
While the application for the Woodbridge stretch was unsuccessful, the campaign remains committed to securing the same level of protection for Woodbridge. “I am obviously very happy that Waldringfield has achieved bathing water status,” says Caroline, “but, I am deeply disappointed that we have not yet been able to provide the same protection for the hundreds of Woodbridge residents and visitors who make use of our entire reach of the river Deben each summer.”
Caroline points to the bather count average of 58 swimmers a day during the 2022 Summer heatwave peak season. She says it shows the Woodbridge stretch of the river is clearly a bathing area. “It’s used by so many, from the teenagers and stand-up paddleboard users at Wilford Bridge to the Sea Scouts at the Tide Mill and the Deben Bluetits swimming from the Town Steps.”
The full application for Woodbridge included 1158 pledges of support as well as letters of support from the parish, town, district, and county councils, and national stakeholders such as Anglian Water and the National Trust.
The Save the Deben campaign aims to secure water-quality testing that will complement that monitoring work being done by the local Citizen Science project and by the water company. Anglian Water has pledged support for the efforts at Woodbridge to re-submit their application in October 2023.
More from East Anglia Bylines
CLICK HERE TO SUPPORT THE BYLINES NETWORK CROWDFUNDER!