In recent years, particularly during COVID Lockdowns, the estuary has been used increasingly for swimming and other recreational uses such as by SUPers, kayakers, etc. For example, there has been a Bantham ‘Swoosh’ involving over 1000 swimmers from the Outdoor Swimming Society (now called ‘Swim Collective’) travelling from Aveton Gifford (AG) at the head of the estuary to Bantham at the estuary mouth on the ebb tide. Some of the swimmers even travel back to AG on the incoming tide.
Very few of these people are aware that after heavy rainfall, the river may contain large amounts of agricultural run-off and raw sewage , the latter thanks to the CSOs from the AG STW (10 permitted per year) and additional release from STWs upstream (for a combined total of around 10 weeks during 2021 – Rivers Trust data). No alerting service for swimmers exists in the estuary, despite the best efforts of the Aune Conservation Association to persuade SWW to cooperate in setting up such a system. In the past, the ACA has been unsuccessful in attempts to get the EA to designate the upper estuary as a bathing water, which would require regular testing and reporting of results for water quality. However, in October 2022, I was contacted by ’Surfers Against Sewage’ who, through DEFRA, were trying to increase the number of Designated Bathing Waters in the UK. I thought that perhaps it was time, with the help of the surfers, to seek such a designation for the entire tidal part of the estuary so I began to investigate this possibility. Firstly, by use of local parish magazines, I asked anybody interested to contact me. The result was a nil response! Secondly, I took soundings with Aveton Gifford Parish Councillors, who would have had to cooperate in the instigation and management of such a scheme. The result – no interest!
In fairness, there would be considerable practical difficulties as DEFRA’s requirements for designation are quite demanding in the need to satisfy various criteria: 1) a documented, historical record of usage, by whom, by type, by date, etc. available for scrutiny 2) evidence of consultation with residents, landowners and anybody that might be affected by designation 3) adequate car parking, public transport, changing and toilet facilities, lifeguards and first aid service. None of these three categories could be satisfied for the upper estuary! Of course, there is also a powerful argument that limitless opportunities for aquatic water sports of all sorts are available around the beaches of the estuary mouth at Bantham and Bigbury-on-Sea, where the Environment Agency performs regular seawater checks in summer with generally outstandingly clean water – free of diluted sewage and agricultural run-off.
So, estuary users please take note and exercise care if entering the water, especially after heavy rainfall. You never know what you might meet!