Monitoring designated bathing water quality
All designated bathing waters around the UK are monitored throughout the bathing season, (1st July – 15th September in Scotland and 15th May to 30th September in England) by analysing water samples taken from the sites.
Sampling results are published within a few days of being taken. In Scotland they are published online or via the bathing waters electronic boards (if there is a sign on site). SEPA also posts daily real-time water quality predictions throughout the bathing season for some sites (Brighouse Bay, Dhoon Bay Rockcliffe, Sandyhills & Southerness get daily predictions in the Scottish Solway). The EA, alternatively, have the Pollution Risk Forecast during the bathing season, providing forecasts (valid until midnight on the day of issue) for bathing waters, considering the increased pollution risk due to predictable factors such as weather.
The sites monitored by SEPA and EA are designated under the Bathing Waters Directive (Directive 2006/7/EC) in order to safeguard the health of the public at popular or promoted areas for summer bathing. This is not an exhaustive list of all the waters the public can visit and bathe in. There are other safe waters which are not monitored, but there are also waters which are not monitored which are unsafe to bathe in. Bathing at a designated bathing water site gives bathers confidence in the quality of the water, which can help encourage bathing and recreational activities, safeguarding the health of visitors. Some waters which are not designated as bathing waters voluntarily monitor water quality, however those that choose to do this are not required to follow the standards set by the Directive.
The EU has had rules for safeguarding public health in regard to bathing waters since the 1970’s, through the 1976 Bathing Water Directive (Directive 76/160/EEC), with the Bathing Waters Directive being introduced to simplify and update these rules. The new system introduced through the 2006 directive requires the testing and monitoring of two bacteria (Escherichia coli/ E.coli and intestinal Enterococci) and informing the public of the water quality, pollution risks, and bathing water area through bathing water profiles. Information should be publicised in a timely manner throughout the bathing season. There are 4 quality classifications; satisfactory, poor, good, and excellent. The classification a water receives is based on the 4 previous years of gathered data to provide an indication of ‘normal’ water quality for each location.
Bathing waters are also classed as protected areas under Annex IV of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) as well as assisting in progress towards achieving the Marine Strategy Framework Directive‘s (MSFD) ‘good environmental status’ goal.
Under this system of monitoring bathing waters there are risks associated with failing to reach minimum standards, with ‘sufficient’ being the minimum standard bathing waters need to meet. Article 5 of the Directive highlights these risks, the financial implications of identification of the reasons for failing to achieve sufficient standard and improving preventing or reducing it may be costly. If the water is classed as ‘poor’ for five consecutive years there is the need to permanently prohibit bathing or permanently advise against bathing.
Many other negative impacts can be linked to the failure to meet quality standards. Local communities and visitors not only lose the amenity and security of good water quality at bathing waters, but tourism may suffer, local businesses may have reduced visitors and customers, and recreational activities and the businesses linked to those activities locally may also suffer.
The minimum thresholds for coastal water monitoring in both Scotland and England are as follows (note that inland waters have different threshold levels for monitoring);
Intestinal Enterococci (IE)
Escherichia coli (EC)
|Coastal Bathing Waters
||EC: ≤250 colony forming units/100ml ; IE: ≤100 colony forming units/100ml
||EC: ≤500 colony forming units/100ml ; IE: ≤200 colony forming units/100ml
||EC: ≤500 colony forming units/100ml ; IE: ≤185 colony forming units/100ml
||means that the values are worse than the sufficient
Source; Environment Agency (n.d.)
These minimum thresholds are provided in the Bathing Waters Directive, and are reiterated in The Bathing Waters (Scotland) Regulations 2008 and The Bathing Water Regulations 2013 which transpose the Bathing Waters Directive into Scottish and English law respectively.
Risks to Water Quality
Water quality can change frequently due to a variety of factors such as pollution and rainfall and therefore it is important for beach users to keep up to date with bathing water monitoring results.
There are several land-based issues which can negatively impact water quality at a designated bathing water including surrounding rivers and waterbodies, surface runoff and drainage (after rain), heavy rainfall, sewage outflows, and sewage. These are issues which are not exclusively within a specific range of the water body, as pollution or issues with other waters can flow into and impact designated bathing waters. Water catchments draining into the designated bathing waters can impact its quality. The management of surrounding waters, land, and pollution all impact bathing waters, and therefore integration of land and water control of pollution is very important. A disconnect between the two raises the possibility of pollution related issues in bathing waters and beyond.
The aesthetic pleasure, and potentially the health, of bathing waters is also negatively impacted by marine litter. As these areas are popular summer bathing spots, coastal and marine litter may be increased as a product of careless visitors, or be washed in on a flood tide. If there is a noticeable amount of litter on the beach at bathing waters it may discourage visitors. With the knowledge that bathing waters attract more visitors, and therefore more litter produced by visitors, bathing waters often have bins to collect the increased volume of litter and encourage responsible disposal of litter. Litter is recorded in the bathing water profiles if seen and significant enough. For more information on marine litter around the Solway Firth see the Marine Litter section of the Solway Review.
Abnormal Incidents and Short-Term Pollution
There are rules laid out in the Bathing Waters Directive (Directive 2006/7/EC) in the case of abnormal incidents and short term pollution events.
The Directive allows for the suspension of sampling during an ‘abnormal’ incident. Water quality is based on statistics over a 4 year period (unless a ‘step change’ which is a significant step taken to improve the water quality of an area where monitoring resets and begins from the year of the change), and so an ‘abnormal’ situation could affect the future classifications for the next 4 years.
The Directive also allows for the disregarding of samples due to short-term pollution events. Short term pollution events are not expected to last more than three days (72 hours). There are other stipulations regarding short-term pollution events, such as the need to include details of anticipated short term pollution in bathing water profiles should short-term pollution be identified as a risk for the bathing water (Annex III) for a sample confirming the end of the event (Annex IV).
Image; © European Commission – European Atlas of the Seas Interactive Mapping