Bathing waters pass European standards despite summer of run-off

Despite the bad weather conditions of the summer and reports of excessive polluting run-off pouring into rivers and coastal waters, 99% of bathing waters in England and Wales are clean enough to meet European standards, Defra announced this week.

Out of a total of 413 coastal and freshwater bathing areas, 406 passed the EC Bathing Water Directive’s main mandatory water quality standards.

The excessively heavy rain in August and September threatened the quality of the bathing waters through high levels of pollutants being washed from the land and from storm sewage overflows into rivers and, ultimately, into the sea.

Campaign groups such as Surfers against Sewage highlighted the dangers of diseases such as impetigo (see related story) from raw sewage which had run-off onto beaches, while others called for a flag warning system to be introduced across the UK to alert people as to when the beaches were too polluted to use. Virtually all of these incidents occurred after heavy rain overloaded the, often ancient, local sewage and storm-water systems.

Environment Minister Elliot Morley said that last summer could have seen a high number of pollution incidents rather than the handful which actually occurred, and that the decade long investment in water infrastructure has made the country less vulnerable to pollution from wet weather.

“However, the wet weather did remind us of the challenge we face in tackling agricultural and urban sources of diffuse pollution. Pollutants flushing through our river catchments after heavy rain during August ultimately led to the failure of six of our seven non-compliant bathing waters in 2004. Dealing with diffuse water pollution is one of our top priorities and we are currently working with stakeholders to promote action and develop measures that best address the problem,” Mr Morley said.

The EU operates a two-tier system of water cleanliness: “mandatory”, and the stricter “guideline” standard. More than 80% of bathing waters in England and Wales now meet the stricter guideline standard. When monitoring began 14 years ago, only about 30% of bathing water met the standard.

Andrew Skinner, Director of Environmental Protection at the Environment Agency said that, although much has been achieved, there was still a lot to be done.

“Water companies need to deliver the programme of improvements to sewage discharges affecting bathing waters recently approved by Ministers. We also need to work closely with land managers and farmers to tackle diffuse pollution. Improved land and soil management techniques together with better drainage systems could have a real positive impact,” he said.

Defra said that ongoing investment totalling £600 million in England and Wales has been committed up to 2005 and is aimed at achieving further improvements in bathing water quality, largely to meet the more stringent “guideline” standards of the Directive. It is targeted at over 100 sewage treatment works and several hundred storm overflows.

Further investment is planned beyond 2005, which will address the few remaining sewage discharges that compromise compliance with the Bathing Water Directive’s mandatory water quality standards.

By David Hopkins

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