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How the Environment Agency monitors and tests bathing water quality

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Cleaner Seas, Environment Agency, Water

Many parts of the UK's coastline are used for bathing and leisure.

Today (15 May) marks the start of this year’s bathing water season. Between now and the end of September, millions of people will head to bathing waters to relax and swim.  

Following Defra’s recent announcement of 27 new bathing waters, there are now 451 designated bathing water sites across England. The Environment Agency (EA) monitors and tests designated bathing waters and makes information available to the public, via the Swimfo website. 

Read more below to find out how you can make informed choices about where to swim and how we at the EA monitor designated bathing water sites, what designation means and how classifications are set. 

A day in the life of an EA Environment Officer - So what does our monitoring actually involve? 

Hi, my name is Jenny Kent and I am one of the Environment Officers who samples bathing waters during the season.  

Between now and September, we will take roughly 7,500 bathing water samples. We then send those samples off to be tested at our lab for two types of bacteria which show whether there is faecal matter in the water: E coli and intestinal Enterococci. The most common sources of bacteria are from livestock, urban drainage and sewage, but it can also come from birds, wildlife and pets.  

Sampling data is uploaded onto Swimfo where you can look up details of a designated bathing water by name or location. This helps you get the most out of your visit to a beach, lake or river by providing immediate access to information about water quality. I always suggest you make checking the bathing water quality online a part of your holiday or daily open water swim planning by visiting Swimfo. 

Swimfo also includes a service called pollution risk forecasting, which lets you know that on some days, water quality can be temporarily reduced at some bathing waters due to factors such as rainfall, wind and high tides. Find out more about pollution risk forecasting here 

What does it mean when a bathing water is designated? 

When a bathing water is designated, it means we monitor water quality there during the season. Importantly, designation also means that information is provided to the public to help inform decisions on where and when to bathe.  

Designated bathing waters are sampled by officers like me, and at the end of the year the results of the samples will be used to give a bathing water a classification of Excellent, Good, Sufficient or Poor. Until they have been classified, we won’t know the quality or whether they are suitable for bathing. Designation does not guarantee clean water for swimming - rivers and seas are not sterile but changing and dynamic natural places.  

It’s also important to remember that rivers and other open water locations that are not designated as bathing waters are managed for the purpose of protecting fish and wildlife, not people. So, health risks from using these locations may be higher than at designated bathing waters.  If you do decide to swim in a river or open water that is not a designated site, you can find out more about how to ‘swim healthy’ here Swim healthy - GOV.UK ( 

A day in the life of an EA Environment Officer - How do classifications work?  

Samples taken by us throughout the bathing season help to produce an annual bathing water classification. Four years' worth of data is used to make a classification, allowing us to identify trends and target the appropriate pollution prevention measures.  

Each bathing water is given one of the following annual classifications:    

  • Excellent – the highest, cleanest class;    
  • Good – generally good water quality;    
  • Sufficient – the water meets the minimum standard;    
  • Poor – the water has not met the minimum standard. Work is planned to improve bathing waters not yet reaching Sufficient. 

Once a year we then publish the official statistics which are available online. 

Britain's coastal waters are dynamic habitats.

Looking forward - what is the Environment Agency doing to improve and maintain bathing waters? 

Water quality at designated bathing water sites has significantly improved compared to recent decades. Our regulation and work with local partners means most designated bathing waters are classified as Excellent (the highest, cleanest class) or Good (generally good water quality). In 2023, 96% of bathing waters met the minimum standard of Sufficient, of which nearly 90% met the highest standards of Good and Excellent.  

Despite a perception by some that sewage contamination of bathing waters from storm overflows is widespread, the evidence shows impacts from multiple sources, including pollution from agriculture and urban run-off. Classifications for 2023 showed there was a slight fall in standards last year, underlining the need for ongoing work to ensure the quality of bathing waters increases. 

Over £2.5 billion has been invested into the sewerage infrastructure by water companies, directed by  the EA to help make our bathing waters a success story and support tourism, health and local economies. If a bathing water is classed as Poor or Sufficient, we work with local partners, including the council, to investigate pollution sources and put in place a local action plan.  

The government is planning a consultation later this year on proposals to reform the Bathing Water Regulations for England. The proposed changes aim to improve bathing water quality, enhance monitoring and enable more flexibility around the dates of the bathing water monitoring season. Find out more here. 

While progress has been made, there is still more to be done to ensure cleaner and healthier waters for people to enjoy. We are committed in continuing to reduce the various sources of pollution and ensure cleaner and healthier waters for people to enjoy. This requires a combined effort from water companies, farmers, regulators, councils and local businesses. We can all help though – as individuals, small steps such as not pouring fats and oils down the sink or flushing wet wipes and other plastic products down the loo can help to protect water quality. Other actions we can take closer to the water include picking up dog poo and not encouraging seagulls by feeding them. 

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Ian posted on

    There’s no river in England safe to swim in even if it has no sewage it still will be contaminated with rat urine and decomposing animals and fish. Just stay out or go to your local baths.


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