UK's bathing waters improve, but still second worst in EC

The UK has the second dirtiest bathing waters in the EC, according to the latest European Commission report on Member States' compliance with the 1976 EC Directive on bathing water quality. But the National Rivers Authority (NRA) has detected evidence of sustained improvement in bathing water quality over the last three years.1

The two reports present different but complementary views of bathing water quality in the UK.

The Commission's report suggests that only Germany has a worse record of compliance with the Directive's bacteriological standards for marine waters. In total, 79% of the UK's 455 designated bathing waters met the mandatory standards in 1992, while 36% met the tighter guideline standards (see table ).

Defending the UK's record, junior Environment Minister Lord Strathclyde said that only 3% of the 3,000 designated bathing waters which failed to comply with the Directive in 1992 were in the UK.

The figures are deceptive if presented only in this way. Only 1,218 marine waters failed in 1992, and 8% of these were in the UK. Inland bathing waters account for the rest of the failures, but none have been designated in the UK. And the UK has relatively few designations compared to several other Member States with lengthy coastlines, another factor which keeps the number of failures down.

In previous years the Government has criticised other EC states for failing to sample all designated waters according to the requirements of the Directive. But in 1992 only France, Germany and the Netherlands appeared to fall significantly short on monitoring. However, the Government is now complaining that analytical methods in use across the Community may not give comparable results.

The Directive leaves "considerable scope" for interpretation on analytical methodology, commented Lord Strathclyde, adding that this will be one of the issues tackled in the review of the Directive now under way.

The NRA's report confirms that 328 of the 416 designated waters in England and Wales passed the mandatory EC coliform standards in 1992, a compliance rate of 79%. This was a 3.4% improvement on 1991 and, the NRA believes, evidence that water companies' investments in sewage treatment are beginning to show environmental benefits.

Chance fluctuations in water quality and sampling add a random variation to each year's results. But analysis of the data for the past five years indicate a real underlying improvement, with a growing proportion of designated waters passing consistently (see table ).

However, on the same basis there is no evidence of a recent improving trend in Scotland, where eight of the 23 designated waters failed to comply in both 1991 and 1992. This is a compliance rate of 65%, and although 16 improvement projects are planned or under way it is unlikely that these will be completed in time to match the 98% rate expected by the NRA in England and Wales by 1995 (ENDS Report 214, pp 28-29 ). The Government has promised the European Commission that the UK will achieve virtually full compliance by this date.

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