The colour of water

Young children are perfectly sure of the colour of water: it is blue, and when they paint rivers or lakes, they seem to choose the most garish shade of blue. Adults know better. It is clear, sometimes white and tumbling, maybe silver. Adults in the Wychwoods know even better. The Evenlode and the Windrush in Witney are brown, opaque, weed strewn, gunk-laden and unappealing, but it doesn’t need to be like this.

Many readers will be familiar with local rivers where conditions are very different.  Picture the river Coln at Bibury, where visitors’ eyes are drawn to the water, full of undisturbed trout.  Or the Windrush at Bourton-on-the-Water, where children splash in the stream, the river bed is clearly visible and even football is played in its waters at an annual match.  Admittedly, the stream is very shallow here but just 200 metres upstream where the water is, perhaps perversely, far deeper, the river bed is clearly visible.

Now come back home.  Anyone peering over the bridge on the A361 is very unlikely to see the river bed beneath its turgid brown waters.  Wild swimming is becoming increasingly popular across the country, but river swimming in both the Windrush and the Evenlode is only undertaken by the brave or foolhardy. The dedicated swimming area in the Windrush below the Tower Hill area of Witney is barely used, and in the Evenlode above Bruern, the cheers of youth are rarely heard any more in this deeper section.  So what has gone wrong?  Why should a river dip now be such a rarity?

While the water companies continue to make appreciable profits, there is little evidence that these profits are used to improve the infrastructure of the river system.  There has been a huge rise in new housing, necessary maybe, but a sewage system designed with fewer houses in mind simply cannot cope.  More housing means more sewage.  Whenever heavy rain overwhelms the sewage plants, the companies are permitted to allow a very limited number of sewage discharges into the rivers but in 2017 Thames Water was fined around £20 million for exceeding this number.  The Environment Agency that polices our rivers is slow to take any decisive action so prosecutions are few and far between.

It was to address this sorry situation that Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP) was set up and has, in its four years of existence, come to public attention on television screens during news bulletins and on Panorama (The river pollution scandal, available on catch-up).  To find out more about their activities, look up

So what will you do to help the water to change colour?

Bob Forster

August-September 2021