‘Unacceptable’: 60% of popular bathing waters sampled deemed ‘unsafe’

The government has agreed that the volume of pollution in UK waters is “unacceptable” after a conservation charity found that multiple popular inland swimming sites in England are unsafe for water users.

Women coming out of lake after a swim. Source - GettyImages, Luis Alvarez

Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) sampled 40 locations each week during the 2023 bathing season. Twenty were popular sites for bathing, and 20 were upstream of a nearby sewage overflow associated with the swimming spots.  

Of the 40 locations, SAS found that 24 (60%) would be deemed ‘poor’ quality were they designated bathing waters using Environment Agency methodology. Four out of the 20 bathing sites also showed a clear decrease in water quality from locations upstream to downstream of a sewage overflow. 

The new data comes just weeks after the government announced its controversial intention to diverge from the EU’s standards for monitoring water quality in England.  

While the 40 sites are not designated bathing sites, and therefore are not included in published bathing water statistics, SAS says carrying out its own monitoring “bridges the gap left by inadequate and inefficient official testing regime”. 

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According to the SAS report, untreated sewage was discharged over 399,864 times into UK waterways - the equivalent of more than 1,000 discharge events every day. The report notes that the majority of overflows in Scotland and Northern Ireland go unreported, meaning this figure is likely a significant underestimate of the true frequency of sewage discharges. 

In Scotland, only 4% of sewage overflows are monitored whilst Northern Ireland Water admits it lacks the ability to record or measure when sewage discharges occur.  

A DEFRA spokesperson said: “We agree the volume of pollution in our waters is utterly unacceptable, and this is the first government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it.

“Our Plan for Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to ensure every overflow is monitored, reduce all sources of pollution and hand out swifter fines and penalties.”

DEFRA said the plan includes targets “so strict” they would lead to the largest infrastructure programme in water company history which it estimates will cost £60bn over 25 years.

But Giles Bristow, SAS chief executive, said: “We are seeing failure at every level – from governments and regulators failing to enforce the law, to water company fat cats pocketing dirty money and refusing to clean up their act – with the general public ending up the biggest loser every time.”