We know how important our bathing waters are to local communities and the health and wellbeing benefits they deliver. The Environment Agency has an important role to play in the regulation of bathing waters, providing scientific and legal advice to government and informing communities about where to take a dip safely.
To protect our waterways and the health of swimmers, the Environment Agency monitors the water quality at more than 400 designated beaches and inland waters across England. We do this through a robust sampling programme – as set out in law in the Bathing Water Regulations.
During the bathing water season, our officers take around 7000 samples across designated bathing water sites and these samples are then tested in the lab. The results can be found on our Swimfo website, enabling swimmers to make an informed choice.
These samples inform water quality data, which is regularly updated throughout the season. Then, an annual classification for each bathing water, based on four years of data, is published after the bathing water season has ended. Last year (2023), 96 per cent of bathing waters met the minimum standard of Sufficient, with 90 per cent meeting the highest standards of Good and Excellent.
When there is heavy rain, high tides or strong winds, we predict that reduced water quality is more likely. This is because heavy rain can wash pollutants from agriculture and roads onto beaches. It can also lead to sewage being spilled if waste water treatment systems are overwhelmed. Although this is a controversial practice, the EA must operate within the current law and storm overflows can be allowed in certain circumstances during heavy rain. We issue these predictions using our online Swimfo service so that swimmers can see these Pollution Risk Forecasts.
This practice of issuing alerts for poor weather is set out in the law and followed across Europe. However, in the UK it has led to some debate. Some commentators say it worsens the public perception of pollution, because a modelled forecast is not the same as an actual pollution incident that has been confirmed on site.
As set out in the Bathing Water Regulations, when we have issued an alert and declared a "Short Term Pollution" event, samples taken during this period can be discounted from the classification process. This is because a warning against swimming has been issued in advance and the conditions are not considered to be reflective of the actual water quality most people bathe in. If these samples were included, the overall classification could be lower.
The Environment Agency plays close attention to this on-going debate and regularly meets with partners to consider the full range of views.
The EA applies the law and issues real time alerts via Swimfo, and excludes samples in Short Term Pollution incidents from our data, just as our peer regulators across Europe do. In fact, this model was cited by the EU as an example of a good practice for modelling short term pollution in a report for the European Commission assessing Member State compliance with the Bathing Water Directive. It is also in line with World Health Organisation advice on best practice.
There are other alert systems. For example, Surfers Against Sewage have a ‘Safer Seas Application’ that combines water company information and Environment Agency warnings - displaying water company alerts for 48 hours after a spill has occurred even though the pollution may have gone.
The Bathing Water regulations allow us to disregard up to 15% of samples over 4 years. This threshold does not tend to be met. Last year, for example, we only excluded 1% of samples. In practice then, the impact on results is modest, and the benefits to swimmers of advanced warning, based on robust science, are high. In 2022, 12 bathing waters were officially classified as Poor. 22 would have been classified Poor if samples had not been discounted under the short-term pollution (STP) provisions of the Regulations. Last year, 2023, the gap was smaller. 18 were classified Poor, 19 would have been classified poor without discounting samples.
The EA takes tough action against polluters, including water companies and has significantly driven up monitoring of storm overflows. We will continue to work closely with the agriculture sector, water companies and local communities to ensure the safest bathing waters for the public.