Join nationwide waterways protest on River Great Ouse this weekend

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Activists on the river and Embankment taking part in the Surfers Against Sewage Paddle Out Protest
Surfers Against Sewage Paddle Out Protest in Bedford on 20 May 2023. Image: Chiara Mac Call

Environmental activists will take to the River Great Ouse this Saturday (18 May) as part of a national protest at the state of the nation’s waterways.

They will join thousands of protesters on coasts and rivers across the UK in action coordinated by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), who are calling for an end to the sewage discharges plaguing the UK’s rivers and seas, as sewage overflows continue to have a devastating impact on ecological and human health.

In Bedford, the SAS Paddle Out will see people will gather at the Embankment to protest Anglian Water’s mismanagement of sewage, which has led to frequent sewage spills in the area.

The protest will begin at 2pm at Castle Mound, with speakers sharing their expertise and experience of sewage in our waterways, work happening locally to address the issues plus talking about the issues in detail.

Swimmers, paddlers, surfers, canoers, kayakers, paddle-boarders, windsurfers and anyone who cares about the health of the local area will take to the water and line up along the Embankment to make their demands heard.

This year has seen action on sewage pollution hit the headlines – both locally and nationally. 

BedsGOVET recently launched their Don’t Lose the Ouse campaign and water quality is predicted to be a core issue influencing voters in the next general election, which must happen before January 2025. 

Read: Monthly column: Standing room only as Don’t Lose the Ouse campaign launched

In addition, in June, regulator Ofwat – whose role is to challenge and scrutinise water companies to ensure they deliver safe and reliable water to people and protect the environment – will deliver recommendations on water companies’ investment plans for the next five years (2025 – 2030).

The tide is turning

Water companies have proposed plans for an £11 billion investment towards reducing sewage discharges. However, they have said that customer bills would rise to cover the costs.

According to analysis by the Financial Times, water companies in England and Wales paid out £2.5 billion in dividends in the two financial years since 2021 and a total over £78 billion in dividends in the 33 years since privatisation. 

Spokesperson from BedsGovet, Carrie Scrivener-Leask told the Bedford Independent: “BedsGovet fully supports organisations with aligned aims who want to restore our beautiful River Great Ouse to clean health. 

“The situation is urgent with some sections of the river (e.g. Bedford and Felmersham) and its tributaries (e.g. Bromham Brook) regularly showing high levels of faecal bacteria and all 12 of our currently monitored river sites showing high levels of nutrient pollution. 

River Great Ouse e.coli average results. Image: BedsGOVET
River Great Ouse e.coli average results. Image: BedsGOVET

“We are a young charity with a Bedfordshire focus but Surfers Against Sewage have been campaigning to stop sewage pollution nationally since the early 1990s. 

“SAS originally focused on coastal pollution, but they are now bringing their campaigning skills to focus on pollution of inland rivers. 

We need to support them and work together to accelerate actions to clean and restore our beautiful river to health for both wildlife and river users.” 

Giles Bristow of Surfers Against Sewage, said: “Like those paddling-out at Bedford, thousands are protesting on the water this weekend to let politicians, regulators and water companies know that the public aren’t going to let them wriggle out of demands for clean seas and rivers.

“We won’t tolerate this broken system any longer.”

In 2023, there were 584,001 recorded discharges across England, Scotland and Wales – a 51% increase on the previous year – with sewage released into waterways for a total of 12,966,322 hours. 

Olympic gold medallist, Etienne Stott MBE, one of the confirmed speakers for the Bedford Paddle Out, said: “I am super happy to be back in Bedford, on the river to which I owe so much and which set me on the path to my Olympic gold medal. 

“It seems very fair to pay back a little of that gratitude in the form of standing against the issues which plague our rivers, lakes and seas. 

“And the the Ouse is sadly not spared from these problems. Sewage pollution, as well as pollution from animal agriculture are major contributors and this needs to be addressed. 

“The companies responsible need to be held to account by government. There is not a day to waste and I think an event like we see here shows that a great many people will not stand for more nice words hiding inaction and continued carelessness by those guilty of destroying the rivers that we love.” 

SAS is calling for an end to sewage discharges into all bathing waters, and high-priority nature sites, by 2030.

To find out more about the Bedford Paddle Out Protest you can head to the Facebook event page here.