Quarter of bathing waters set to fail new EU standards

Nearly one in four beaches and inland bathing waters across the UK are on course to fail tougher new EU water quality standards when they are introduced next year

Bathing waters across the UK could fail tougher new EU standards for water quality (photograph: zugzwang/123RF)Nearly one in four UK beaches are on course to exceed EU limits for E.coli and intestinal enterococci when they are introduced next year, according to new DEFRA figures.

Data published on 6 November shows that nearly all bathing waters in the UK met minimum European quality standards this summer.

But 142 (22%) of the 625 bathing waters assessed across the UK will fail new guidelines coming into force next year unless they show a marked improvement. These include Southend Jubilee, Walpole Bay Margate, Teignmouth Town and Blackpool Central.

From 2015, bathing waters standards under the revised EU Bathing Water Directive will be much tougher than the current ‘pass’ or ‘fail’ system.

DEFRA has been classifying bathing waters against both the existing and the forthcoming standards since 2009 to give an indication of where problems may arise.

This year, 99.2% of the UK's bathing waters met the existing standard, the same level as in 2013. In 2012 only 94% passed.

But against the new guidelines, compliance across the UK fell to 78% in 2014 from 81% in 2013, although this remains higher than in 2010 and 2011.

Water minister Dan Rogerson said meeting the new water quality targets would be a “huge challenge”.

Compliance in the north-east region of England dipped this year to 83% from 85% in 2013. This is lower than 91% in 2011 but better than the very low compliance rate of 46% in 2012. Heavy rainfall in summer 2012 was offered as the reason for poor water quality that year. 

The Anglian region performed well this year with 90% compliance in 2014 against 85% in 2013.

The south-east dropped seven percentage points from the previous year to record 80% compliance in 2014. The south-west also dropped six percentage points to 85%.

The north-west’s bathing waters, which consistently have the lowest compliance rate in the UK, increased to 37% in 2014 against 21% in 2013.

Wales’ compliance rates dropped slightly from 89% in 2013 to 88% in 2014. Scotland dropped to 56% from 59% the previous year. And Northern Ireland’s compliance showed a significant decrease from 87% in 2013 to 70% in 2014.

Variation between years and across the UK is partly because the microbiological quality of bathing waters is affected by pollution from agriculture and urban areas, discharges of sewage effluent and storm water overflows. Failures are often preceded by periods of heavy rainfall which wash pollution into streams and rivers.

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