St. Agnes

Almost a 1/3rd (32.3%) of designated beaches in England and Wales have failed to meet the UK’s guideline standard for water quality during the 2008 bathing season.

There are 495 designated bathing waters in England and Wales and of these 160 could not meet the tougher of 2 water quality standards set by the European Union (EU) to protect public health and the environment from faecal pollution at bathing waters.

While leading clean water campaigners, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) feel all designated beaches should meet the ‘guideline’ standard, given it has been set as a target for 32 years under the 1976 EU Bathing Water Directive, changes in weather conditions are now making this task increasingly difficult.

Despite a massive investment in the sewerage infrastructure right across the UK, the last 2 years of wet summer weather has highlighted just how vulnerable the nation’s beaches are to dips in water quality after heavy rainfall. SAS predict worse is to follow if our summers continue to be broken by intense rainfall events as expected in the coming years.

However, SAS are quick to point out that a solution which reduces the impact of heavy rainfall on future water quality results, should not just fall on the shoulders of the nation’s water companies, but will require a well defined and integrated strategy from a number of authorities.

While pollution from sewage treatment works continue to be a problem during wet weather, run-off from agriculture and urban areas are also having an impact on the bathing results, highlighting just how diverse the sources of pollution can be.

Water customers will also have a role to play and they must be aware that wasting water in the house adds to the burden of local sewage treatment works.

When you combine this with normal wastewater flows and any storm water that might also be generated from a heavy rainfall event, then the majority of sewage treatment works won’t have the capacity to ‘treat’ this water. Instead, it will enter local rivers or the sea with higher bacterial loads. This can create poorer water quality and increase the public health risks for those using the water for recreation.

So, rather than lobby for big increases in capital expenditure by the water industry, SAS is focusing its campaigning efforts on the need for more low cost, sustainable, urban drainage systems (SUDS), that capture and store storm water more effectively and which allow the flows of wastewater entering sewage treatment works to be better managed.

By taking this approach there is more likelihood that wastewater will be treated to a high level as originally intended and in a way that keeps our beaches clean and safe for everyone to use. SUDS can be as simple as ‘planting a few more trees’ in areas susceptible to flooding and ensuring new building developments incorporate permeable paving into their driveways.

Improvements to beach signage and access to real time water quality information will also be beneficial to recreational water users in the future. This will make them better aware of where and when they are most susceptible to illness through contact with poor water quality. SAS would like to see DEFRA introduce real time electronic signage on water quality for popular beaches that are most at risk from poorer water quality.

These signs can predict water quality ’on the spot’ having interpreted expected rainfall data from the Met Office and likely pollution threats from the Environment Agency. The signs have already been successfully implemented at some Scottish beaches by the Scottish Executive.      

Andy Cummins, SAS Campaign Manager says: “After so much money has been spent on increasing the levels of sewage treatment across the nation, we are now facing the prospect of a changing climate undermining the significant improvements made on cleaner coastal water.

The last 2 summers have been exceptionally wet and water quality has suffered as a result. We need to be fully prepared for future summers to be disrupted by extreme weather events and when this happens those using the coast for recreation will be affected. If we want our water quality not to suffer then we have to start to think about using more SUDS to reduce rainfall impacts and improve the real time information on water quality that we pass on to those using our beaches”.

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