Sewage pollution in Dales rivers and streams discussed at public meeting

Charlotte Simons speaks at the meeting.

Bishopdale Beck in Wensleydale is so polluted by untreated sewerage that it is unsafe for children to play in it, it was claimed at a public meeting to discuss the health of the River Ure and its tributaries.

More than 100 people attended the meeting at Leyburn Methodist Church Hall, which was organised by the Association of Rural Communities.

Chairman, Alastair Dinsdale, told the meeting: “I have lived alongside the River Ure and its tributary Ellerbeck all of my life. I remember playing in the stream and spent many years exploring and fishing the Ure, but have noticed a gradual decline in the health of the river.

“We know the water companies are failing to invest and update the infrastructure. Local authorities need to develop an integrated approach to planning and its impact on the environment, including the rivers.

“We want tonight to be positive and bring about accountability and change. We need a strong group of people to monitor the state of the river, and we need to lobby to improve things before the River Ure becomes the Wensleydale sewer.”

Richard Loukota from Thornton Rust told the meeting that according to the Environment Agency there had been 11,612 hours of discharge during 2023 as compared to 4,370 hours in 2022.

This, he said, was an increase of 160 per cent.

There had been discharges for 3,233 hours in 2023 from the treatment plant between Leyburn and Harmby, he added.

West Burton resident, Neil Smeeton, speaking on behalf of Burton cum Walden Parish Council, described how upset he was to see visitors allowing their children to play in Bishopdale Beck.

He reported that in 2022 the sewage treatment plant at West Burton discharged untreated sewage on 138 separate days for a total of 1,079 hours. And it was only slightly better in 2023.

He said: “West Burton sewage treatment plant was the worst for days of discharging untreated sewage in the whole River Ure catchment area all the way from Hawes right down to Ripon. And 29th worst of all the 2,224 similar plants in the whole of Yorkshire Water area.

“Burton cum Walden Parish Council has asked Yorkshire Water to increase the storage capacity of our local treatment plant so no untreated sewage has to be pumped straight into our beautiful Bishopdale Beck.

“Untreated sewage only adds to the beck’s problems from Thoralbys treatment plant upstream.’

He and others commented on the decrease in the number of fish especially in the breeding areas along the becks near Hawes.

Eddie Wyvill, chairman of the Yorkshire Dales Salmon Group, told the meeting that he was also born in Wensleydale but in the last ten to 15 years had seen changes which had had a massive impact upon the landscape with a direct correlation with the quality of water in the river.

He said: “The Yorkshire Dales was one of the strongholds of [hay] meadows. They used to be full of different kinds of grasses and full of flowers.

“But now, due to intensive dairy farming, particularly in Coverdale, many of the hay meadows have been replaced with rye grass, a monoculture with no insects.  He added that the fields of rye grass were sprayed with slurry and cut five times a year.

“Just before heavy rainfall down the slurry tankers come, the whole Dale stinks. I spoke to one of the farmers [who sprayed] 1,500 litres of slurry per acre per cut. That’s eight and a half thousand litres of slurry per acre. And some are doing it down by the River Ure – on the flood plain.”

He believed, therefore, that the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority  (YDNPA) should be held accountable for land use in the Dale.

Hannah Fawcett, the YDNPA farm conservation advisor, pointed out that the authority owns less than one per cent of the land in the national park.

She and the authority’s catchment-sensitive farming team works with private landowners and farmers by offering advice when requested.

This included assistance with obtaining grants through participation in national environment and countryside stewardship schemes.

The other speakers were Charlotte Simons, a senior project manager with Yorkshire Dales River Trust, Clare Beasant, the manager of Yorkshire Water’s newly created River Health Improvement team, and Nathan Lawson that team’s partnership and community engagement advisor.

Ms Beasant and Mr Lawson assured the meeting that the problems with treatment plants will be investigated and solutions found.

Ms Simons, who leads the YDRT’s Wharfe Catchment Management Plan, described how volunteer teams participating in a citizens’ science programme had carried out water sampling along the River Wharfe.

These samples were sent for analysis and the test results used to identify specific areas and types of pollution.

“If you want to do advocacy you need to ensure you have got accurate and credible results. You need to make sure you are following the protocol that is accepted by the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water,” she told the meeting.

She added: “Citizen scientists are worth their weight in gold. We can’t do [this] without the support of people in the community and without your interest on the ground.”

Citizen science was also emphasised by Ms Beasant. She said they only had a small river health team at the moment so they couldn’t do the job on their own and they needed to work with communities.

She stated: “What we don’t do is talk to people enough, and what we don’t do is listen to people enough. And that’s why are really excited about being here tonight. We want to be involved and we want to support you as much as we can.”

This, she said, would include offering to cover the high cost of the water sampling kits and analysis, the latter being carried out by an independent laboratory.

Many expressed an interest in setting up a group similar to that for the River Wharfe and also Save our Swale. The Association of Rural Communities stated it would organise a meeting to do this and would then step back.

If any others would like to be involved they can contact Pip Pointon at pipspatch@gmail.com