An environmental charity has submitted two applications to the Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in a bid to obtain bathing water designations for Wallingford Beach and Mill Meadows in Henley.

Thames21 has submitted the bids with support from South Oxfordshire District Council, Wallingford Town Council and Henley Town Council.

These applications form part of Thames21’s ‘Reclaim our Rivers’ project, which aims to increase the number of inland bathing waters across the Thames Basin and address pollution in UK rivers. There are currently only three inland bathing waters designated along rivers in England. 

Throughout the bathing water season, which runs from May to September, Thames21 has worked with local authorities, connected with local environment and community groups, and engaged with more than 230 individuals and local organisations as part of the consultation process for these two applications.

In both locations, 97 per cent of responses were in support of designating their local stretch of river as a bathing water site, with many sharing heartfelt stories and memories of Oxfordshire’s rivers and the need to protect them from pollution and degradation.

Under the ‘Reclaim our Rivers project’, Thames21 has trained 49 citizen scientists from the local Henley and Wallingford communities. These groups recorded the number of bathers, with the busiest days reaching 391 and 545 for Wallingford Beach and Mill Meadows respectively.

The charity is adamant that demonstrating the popularity of these recreational sites will be essential to a successful application.

Citizen scientists were also trained in water quality sampling as part of a weekly monitoring programme throughout the bathing water season. A total of 140 samples were analysed by Thames Water for E.Coli and Intestinal Enterococci, two bacteria which indicate faecal matter and pose a serious risk to human health.

Thames21 expects to receive a response from DEFRA regarding the outcome of the applications by spring 2024.

Chris Coode, CEO at Thames21, said: “Water quality and the health of rivers must improve. Bathing water designations can act as much-needed drivers of change, through which positive improvements can be achieved for the health of the river and local communities.

“The ‘Reclaim our Rivers’ project is bringing together the voices of individuals, groups, and communities to advocate for their local river, whilst sharing best practice and lessons learnt. It is vital that rivers are safe, healthy spaces for local communities to access and enjoy.”