The standards laid down by the 1976 EC Directive on bathing water quality should have been met in 1985. But it was not until 1990 - after water privatisation - that a £2 billion programme was launched to improve coastal sewage discharges and storm overflows affecting designated bathing waters.
All but a handful of major schemes in the programme were due for completion by 1995. But some have slipped behind schedule, while others have proved inadequate to assure compliance with the EC standards.
For England and Wales, the Environment Agency predicted two years ago that 95% of designated waters would meet the mandatory EC standards for coliform bacteria in 1996, with close to a 100% pass rate in 1997. But this autumn it revised the projected pass rate to "at least" 93% in 2000.
Announcing this summer's results, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) chose to highlight that "bathing water quality in England this season was the best ever and overall UK results were better than last year."
There was indeed an improvement on last year, with the proportion of UK waters meeting the mandatory coliform limits increasing from 88.3% last year to 88.7% this year. But both these figures were below the pass rates of 91%, 91% and 89.6% achieved in 1994-96.
The compliance rates in the last two years were inflated by the addition of 23 newly designated waters, all of which passed the EC standards. Ten further waters were designated this year, and eight of these also passed. Three waters also moved from the "fail" to the "pass" categories after polluted water samples were disregarded on the grounds of "abnormal weather", as allowed by the Directive.
Performance in most parts of the UK held steady or showed a slight improvement. The overall picture was clouded by substantial deteriorations in Scotland, where the compliance rate was the lowest for ten years, and in the Northumbrian region (see table ).
Compliance with the stricter EC "guideline" standards improved slightly this year, with 173 waters (44.4%) in England and Wales passing compared with 167 last year. The pass rate, though, was still below the 1996 figure of 175.
Other features of this year's results include:
The north-west remains the UK's bathing water black spot. North West Water's programme to bring itself into compliance was thrown off course following the failure of modelling work to make accurate predictions of the dispersal and die-off of bacteria discharged from some of its major sewage works and storm overflows. Earlier this year, the company announced plans to spend an extra £100 million on upgrading several sewage works (ENDS Report 277, p 3 ).
The programme is due for completion in 2000. In the meantime, some of the region's bathing waters continue to experience high levels of sewage pollution. The peak value recorded this year was 110,000 faecal coliforms per 100ml of water off St Anne's North, south of Blackpool - 55 times the EC limit of 2,000/100ml.
In Scotland, meanwhile, proposals for designating an extra 60 bathing waters have been submitted to a Scottish Office review by local authorities and community groups.