The popularity of open water swimming has been increasing over the past few years. According to Swim England, there are 5.3 million wild swimmers in England alone. So the quality of bathing water is hugely important.
The good news is that the vast majority of designated bathing sites around the UK for both inland waters and coastal waters do meet high enough quality standards, and they are regularly tested throughout the summer months.
The Environment Agency (EA) has tested the water at the more than 400 designated bathing locations across England - with the majority being beaches along the coastline - and 99% of them meet the minimum water quality standards, with the vast majority scoring ‘good’ or ‘excellent’.
More than 20 samples are taken from each site during the bathing season (between May and September). Results are published on the Environment Agency Swimfo website, which also notifies people when Pollution Risk Warnings have been issued.
Since 2015, the Environment Agency has required water companies to install Event Duration Monitors at storm overflows located at or near bathing water sites. The monitors capture data on the frequency and duration of storm overflow discharges, which is taken into account when assessing water quality, particularly after heavy rain.
Scotland has 85 designated bathing areas. In 2021, 99% of them met the minimum water quality standards. Water testing is undertaken during the bathing season between June and mid-September, and the current status of each location is posted on the Scottish Environment Protection Agency website. The frequency of water sampling varies, but at some sites, it can be monitored once or twice a week.
In Wales, 105 designated bathing waters are regularly tested during the bathing season between May and September by Natural Resources Wales. Every site meets the minimum standards, with 80% of the designated bathing sites being awarded ‘excellent’ status in 2021.
There are 26 designated bathing locations in Northern Ireland, and the water is monitored between June and September. In 2021, the majority of these sites received an overall excellent grading, and weekly testing results are published by area.
It is obvious that the better the quality of the water, the safer it is for public health. But there are other reasons why ensuring water is clean water that’s suitable for wild swimming is so important. The economy is at the top of this list.
As Emma Howard Boyd, England’s Environment Agency Chair, explained. “With billions spent on seaside visits every year, we know good sea water quality helps coastal towns prosper. Twenty years of improvements in bathing water took targeted regulation and significant investment.”
However, even though England’s designated bathing sites are good quality, Howard Boyd does concede that there is still a long way to go. “While this is reflected in today’s results we must continue to work together to maintain this trend. We cannot afford to be complacent. Public confidence in water quality has faltered in recent years with new evidence of pollution incidents getting much needed attention as a result of some excellent campaigning. The polluter must pay. To restore trust, water companies, industry and farmers need to get the basics right or face legal action.”
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