Many of us have idyllic memories of seaside holidays in the UK as a child, where the sun always shone, and the sea always seemed to be clear. Sadly, the reality isn’t that, and sewage contamination is still a problem in many areas. Last year there were 2,900 raw sewage spills on English and Welsh beaches, polluting the environment and risking public health.

Designated bathing waters

There are nearly 700 designated bathing waters throughout the UK and Ireland, mostly coastal but with 16 lakes and one river (River Wharfe, Ilkley) currently included.

By protecting and enhancing bathing waters and river quality, water companies are not only improving the natural environment, they are also contributing to the economy. This summer the likelihood of people wanting to swim in rivers, lakes or the sea may be greater and with that will hopefully come a boost to local tourism and therefore the economy.

Under UK law, responsible parties such as local authorities must monitor and assess bathing water for faecal bacteria and inform the public about bathing water quality and beach management through bathing water profiles and beach signage. The compliance is calculated annually based on samples taken from the previous four years, and the categories are:

  • Excellent – the cleanest sites likely to attract beach awards, such as Blue Flags
  • Good – better than the minimum standards hence generally good water quality
  • Sufficient – the water meets the minimum standards
  • Poor – the water has not met the minimum standards. Work will be needed to improve bathing waters.

If the beach is classified as Poor for several years running, then a sign advising against bathing will be displayed, along with information about pollution sources and what action is being taken to clean it up.

The UK government have set targets to improve designated bathing waters under the current investment programme (AMP7) and an estimated £25 bn has already been invested by the sector in wastewater quality since privatisation of water companies. However, it is clear that there is more work to be done if targets have a chance of being met.

What is the solution?

Sewage will spill into bathing waters when sewer overflows have insufficient capacity left in the system, normally as a result of heavy rain. However, with intensity of rainfall events increasing year on year from climate change, the pressure on the infrastructure will only continue.

Sewage spills are not the only source of bacterial pollution affecting bathing water quality, others include livestock waste and surface water runoff.

Understanding where the existing catchment challenges are and how assets such as sewer overflows are performing is the first step in taking control and improving bathing water quality.

Bathing water data is a key element in a quality programme and helps to identify if and when any significant changes occurred in bathing water quality. A screening assessment of each pollution source then needs to be undertaken and categorised as either a high, medium or low pollution risk.

This is usually undertaken in tandem with a comprehensive walkover inspection survey, designed to identify all the potential sources of pollution. Through in-situ field measurements this can ensure that an immediate indication of a source of pollution is available.

How APEM can help

APEM have supported the UK’s water industry for over 30 years, from pollution responses to water quality monitoring and assessments. Our unique blend of technical and operational staff, combined with an approach that has evolved from working with water companies over time, delivers the best results for our clients.

For a full list of our services for the water industry click here.

We have worked with many water companies to help them achieve improved bathing water quality. By designing a robust programme that includes desktop studies, catchment walkover surveys and aerial surveys, we provide monitoring programmes that achieve the needs of the water companies to meet the challenging regulatory targets for bathing water quality.

The benefits of a walkover survey are many and our experienced field scientists will collect supplementary information, such as visible signs of sewage or farm waste pollution (sewage litter and sewage fungus), and odour due to sewage or farm waste.

They will compile a range of evidence (including photographs) that provides in-depth detail that clearly demonstrates the sources of contamination, the first stage in developing mitigation.

We are experienced at carrying out walkover surveys in both dry and wet weather, a wet weather survey giving an opportunity to understand the impacts of intermittent discharges.

Our approach provides detail on the distribution and severity of sources of bacterial pollution that impact bathing waters, from which we can describe evidence for strategic planning purposes and recommendations for the types of remediation measures that are required.

To find out more and to discuss your bathing water programme please contact Rob Moore, Principal Scientist.

Related content

Blog – Sewage spills need to be managed: SOAF provides a framework for dealing with problem sites

Blog – What are diatoms and what can they tell us about water quality?

Blog – The Environment Bill – supporting the UK water industry to deliver

Case study – Aerial Survey of East Coast Bathing Waters