Bedford’s Great River Ouse e-coli levels hit new high

Don't Lose the Ouse logo (positive)
Don't Lose the Ouse logo. Image: BedsGOVET

Local environmental campaigners, Bedfordshire Great Ouse Valley Environmental Trust (BedsGovet) who launched the Don’t Lose the Ouse campaign in March, were disbelieving when the monthly river water quality test results for May came back from their UKAS accredited laboratory.

Two samples are taken at each site for verification purposes, which helps to build up a picture over time and explore possible sources and solutions. It is not unusual for them to be different as water is volatile and constantly moving.

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On the May date, many sites tested were good. However, the testing site at Allen Bridge, Bedford, recorded levels of e-coli that were a staggering 33 times higher than the UK-recommended safe limit of 900CFU/100ml.

Sadly, when checks were carried out, the laboratory confirmed that this was not a mistake, or a typographical error and they stand by the result.

For comparison purposes, the highest recorded levels of e-coli in the river Thames at the time of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race in March were 9,801 CFU per 100ml, and at 10 times the safe limit this made national news.

Rowers taking part were told not to enter the Thames and warned to cover blisters and wear footwear when getting in and out of the boat.

Expert national bodies have published plans that could help to turn this filthy tide.

BedsGOVET data May 2024
BedsGOVET data May 2024. Tap/click to expand

A recent report by The National Engineering Policy Centre called for immediate and longer-term actions to limit the public health risk from sewage.

Professor Chris Whitty KCB FRS, Chief Medical Officer for England endorsed urgent action, saying, ‘Minimising human faecal organisms in freshwater is a public health priority as well as an environmental one.’

This is a stark reminder that although pollution levels in the River Great Ouse vary across BedsGovet’s 12 current Bedford Borough testing sites, at different times of the year, the health of the river and every living thing that depends upon it, is under severe threat.

The dashboard on Anglian Water’s website showed that during recent heavy rain, the Bedford Combined Sewage Outfall triggered its Emergency Discharge Monitor. When contacted for a comment, Bedford Borough Council did not want to provide a comment.

BedsGovet trustees, citizen scientists and volunteers have been working hard to raise awareness of the dangers to biodiversity and human health and to provide a positive campaign that residents of Bedfordshire can get behind to make a difference.

This month they joined Surfers Against Sewage at the Bedford rally in support of the Paddle-Out Protest, made a film about the Don’t Lose the Ouse campaign in association with Wells&Co, attended the community feedback event on the environment section of Bedford Borough Council’s Corporate Plan and held a volunteer meeting at Brewpoint to discuss ‘What Next’ steps.

BedsGovet will support River Action (based in Herefordshire), whose River Charter was publicised in the Houses of Parliament earlier this year.

River Action have expressed support for BedsGovet and we are asking all Bedfordshire residents; individuals, corporate, not-for-profit and statutory organisations to get behind these aims and to add their logo to show support.

Don't Lose the Ouse board at recent Surfers Against Sewage protest. Image: BedsGOVET
Don’t Lose the Ouse board at recent Surfers Against Sewage protest. Image: BedsGOVET

Further donations and sponsorship of our community activity are, of course, always welcome too.

Teachers and other education specialists who want to be involved in BedsGovet’s creation of cross-curricular educational materials suitable for KS1-3 about rivers in general and the Great Ouse in particular are invited to a meeting in Bedford Library on Monday 17th June 4-6pm.

Attending is free but places are limited, so contact to express interest.

Materials generated will be freely accessible to all, downloadable and adaptable for use during the academic year 2024-2025. This project is designed to increase understanding of the river and allow children, whose future is most at risk, to be part of the solution.

BedsGovet is working in conjunction with Bedford Library service, BeActive’s Street Tag team, the John Bunyan Boat, Bedford Creative Arts, and Bedford College graphic design students among many others with aligned aims.

To join the workshop, become an Associate Member, a volunteer Citizen Scientist or offer help in any way please email BedsGovet on and follow us on Facebook.

By Tricia Lennie