Commission publishes proposal for new bathing water directive

The European Commission has published its proposal for a new rationalised bathing water directive in order to keep pace with changes in science and technology, and intended to further improve water quality and provide better information to the public.


This is the Commission’s second attempt at producing a new bathing water directive. The first, in 1994, failed as member states objected to tightening standards, and has now been formally repealed in order to make way for the new proposal.

Criticisms of the current directive, which dates back to 1976, and which the Commission points out has clearly improved bathing water quality in Europe – though the improvement has slowed in recent years – has been increasingly criticised on a number of grounds, including outdated parameters, no specification of analysis methods, and the fact that microbial analysis requires considerable time, resulting in delayed reactions.

“There is great public interest in the quality of bathing water and clear recognition that only a European system can guarantee water quality,” said Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström. “In modernising this Directive, one of my objectives is to improve our ability to inform the public about bathing water quality as well as to update the rigorous standards which have helped to ensure an overall improvement in the quality of bathing water since 1976”.

As well as monitoring water quality in bathing sites, the new directive will also tackle pollution sources, including waste water discharges and agricultural run-off. The new directive would also require good quality information in near-real time about bathing areas, in order to allow the public to make informed choices about if and where to bath, and in order to allow authorities to make long-term management decisions. The best medium for information would be the internet, says the Commission, which could be used to show bathing zone profiles, maps, water quality monitoring, action programmes, though more conventional media should also be used.

The proposal includes revised definitions, including that of ‘bathing water’, which is identified as all running and still inland surface waters, and transitional and coastal waters which are actively promoted or regularly used for bathing. The directive would not concern water intended for therapeutic purposes, water used in swimming pools, or confined waters that are subject to chemical disinfection.

The revised directive should have a greater emphasis on the application of suitable and prompt management actions within a certain time-frame to reduce or eliminate the risk of pollution or prevent human exposure. Authorities would also be expected to produce a beach profile, describing, quantifying, understanding and mapping all potential sources of pollution. A minimum fortnightly sampling regime would be required for beaches with a confirmed history of good water quality, but other beaches would require more frequent sampling.

The Commission is waiting for new World Health Organisation guidelines before finalising its revised microbiological levels for bathing waters. However, in order to facilitate discussion, the proposal includes a suggested level for coastal waters of 50 intestinal enterococci per 100ml, and 400 escherichia coli per 100ml for fresh waters. Two instant indicators of divergence from normal pH and turbidity for fresh waters, and divergence from normal salinity for coastal waters would also be used to indicate that something out of the ordinary has occurred.

The Commission is inviting interested parties, such as the technical and scientific community, regional and local authorities, water users, the tourism industry and NGOs to send comments on the proposal, including suggestions on improving the directive. The consultation exercise will culminate in a Bathing Water Conference during Green Week (24-28 April 2000) to which all individuals and institutions who have responded will be invited. Comments should be sent before 1 March 2001 to: European Commission, Directorate-General Environment, Unit on Water protection, soil conservation and agriculture, Avenue Beaulieu 9, office 3/133, 1160 Brussels, Belgium; or they can be emailed to Env-Water@cec.eu.int.

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