CAMPAIGNERS have challenged water authorities to help Oxfordshire's rivers reach the highest environmental standards.

The Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) group has urged local councils, the water industry and the Environment Agency to help the county's eight major waterways achieve Blue Flag status.

Blue Flags are displayed at beaches, marinas and boating tourism operators across the world that achieve high environmental and bathing standards.

Most of Oxfordshire's rivers were classed as in either moderate or poor condition in 2016, but WASP founder Ashley Smith insists seeking Blue Flag status would also tackle pollution.

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He said: "So many other aspects of pollution can be quite difficult to grasp in terms of their relevance.

"If we treat a river with the respect it needs, we can take care of so many of the problems. Water is a community asset."

WASP has had early discussions with Oxfordshire County Council, West Oxfordshire District Council and Witney Town Council about working towards Blue Flag status, which has been granted to more than 4,500 places and operators in 45 countries.

Environment Agency statistics show that in 2016 just two sections of river were in good health in the entire county: one part of the River Ock, near Abingdon, and one leg of the Cherwell.

The county's rivers include the Thames and the Cherwell, but Mr Smith admitted the group's initial focus was on the waterway at the heart of its campaign.

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He said: "We think it should apply to the whole country, but we've got to start on the Windrush.

"We aren't telling people to stay out of the rivers, we're giving them the information to make informed decisions.

"If we're telling anyone to do anything, it's telling the water industry and the Environment Agency to treat rivers and people with the respect they deserve."

WASP has raised awareness of the apparent decline of the Windrush through several methods, from citizen science studies to a stall at Countryfile Live at Blenheim Palace earlier this month.

Last week, members met Witney MP Robert Courts, who this week was appointed parliamentary private secretary to the environment secretary, Theresa Villiers.

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The MP called for 'urgent and substantial action', adding: “It is important that we understand on a scientific basis, through a thorough investigation with independence, what it is causing this decline in water quality in order to effectively combat it.

"I entirely support the work WASP are doing to improve the cleanliness and quality of the Windrush, including working towards Blue Flag accreditation.

"I will be looking at how this might be achieved and how upcoming legislation such as the landmark Environment Bill can improve the quality of the Windrush and other local rivers."

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We’re constantly monitoring the River Windrush for water quality and have increased our monitoring this year. We’ve seen no evidence of pollution on the Windrush to date.

"If we did we’d take appropriate action as proven by the three convictions of Thames Water since 2017, resulting in fines of more than £22m.

"Water quality in our rivers has improved significantly since the Industrial Revolution due to work by the water industry and strong regulation and legal action by the Environment Agency.”