Scotland’s bathing waters gear up for their toughest test yet

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Cullen Beach

Scotland’s beaches are great to visit for a day out, and there’s nothing better than a dip in the sea on a hot day. However, variable Scottish summer weather can have a major impact on the quality of bathing waters. The introduction of stringent rules, requiring higher standards than ever, will help protect the health and well-being of their users.

SEPA monitors Scotland’s 83 designated bathing waters from 1 June to the 15 September each year, and collects up to 20 water samples at each location.

In our laboratories we measure these samples against standards set out under current European legislation. If more than 5% of samples (more than one in twenty) fail to meet the mandatory standard within a season the bathing water is considered to have failed for that season.

Whilst the majority of our designated bathing waters consistently meet the required standards set out in European law, it is widely accepted that our changeable weather patterns and heavy summer rains can have negative impacts on their quality throughout the season.

One of the main causes of poor bathing water quality in Scotland is diffuse pollution run-off from agricultural and rural sources, when bacteria are washed from the land into the surrounding water environment, usually as a result of heavy rainfall. Individually, these losses may be small but when combined across a river catchment, they can have big impacts upon shellfishery and bathing water quality.

Sewage is also a significant cause of pollution to our coastal waters. During heavy rainfall, stormwater overflow can cause untreated sewage to enter our rivers and lochs, as well as directly into the sea, causing high levels of pollution for a few days after the event.

The good news though is that in 2012, in spite of one of the wettest summers on record, 81 of Scotland’s 83 official bathing waters achieved the mandatory standard for bathing water quality. However, from 2015 new, stricter bathing water standards will be coming into force, making it more difficult for Scotland’s bathing waters to meet the required standards.

The revised directive

The revised Bathing Water Directive changes the way in which bathing water quality is assessed, classifying waters as ‘excellent’, ‘good’, ‘sufficient’ or ‘poor’. The standards are significantly more stringent than those of the current directive and all bathing waters are required to be ‘sufficient’ or better by 2015.

Under the new directive, samples will be measured against two key mandatory microbial parameters; Escherichia coli (e-coli) and intestinal enterococci. These have more stringent, health-related standards, making compliance with the new directive significantly tighter.

The data used for the annual classification of a bathing water will change from a single, one year period, to a rolling, four year period. Therefore, data from the 2012 season onwards will count towards our first classification report in 2015.

With the 2013 bathing water season now well underway, our staff are busy sampling and reporting on the condition of Scotland’s bathing waters. However, reducing the effects of diffuse pollution remains a key priority for us and we continue to work with our partners to improve bathing water quality in Scotland, not only to help bring all our bathing waters up to the required standard by 2015, but make our summer visits to the beach more safer and enjoyable.

5 things you can do

At SEPA, we’re committed to giving people better information about water quality, enabling bathers and other water users to make informed choices about the risks they may face from possible pollution.

This year the public now has more ways than ever to get up-to-date details on water quality. During the bathing water season (1 June to 15 September), we provide daily predictions of water quality at 23 bathing beaches across the country. These predictions are based on a daily assessment of data, which is reviewed every morning by our hydrometric staff. This information is available on electronic signs, located at the bathing waters as well as on our website and through Beachline (08452 30 30 98). And this year we’ve also developed an iPhone app and our mobile friendly bathing water website so there are even more ways to access the information.

By providing information on water quality, we can ensure that those visiting a bathing water during the season have all the information they need for a safe visit. We hope that everyone can take the opportunity to make the most of our beautiful beaches this summer.

Ettrick Bay

Located on the west coast of the Isle of Bute, Ettrick Bay is a sandy bay popular with locals and visitors, and offers spectacular views of nearby Arran.

The bay, which is composed primarily of coarse sand, measures around 1.7km in length, and during high and low tides the approximate distance to the water’s edge can vary from 0-500 metres.

We monitor Ettrick Bay, and the rest of Scotland’s designated bathing waters, throughout the bathing water season.

Real-time bathing water quality predictions for Ettrick Bay are displayed on-site using electronic message signs, and daily forecasts for the bay are also available on our website, via a mobile phone app, and via the Beachline service.

Ettrick Bay is part of the Isle of Bute catchment and, like many catchments in Scotland, suffers from rural diffuse pollution. Pollution from agricultural run-off is thought to occur in five of the eight water courses discharging to or adjacent to the Ettrick Bay bathing water. Work in this catchment is due to take place between 2015 and 2021, with targeted actions to tackle rural diffuse pollution being identified and discussed with farmers. Between 1999 and 2009 the bay only achieved the ‘mandatory’ European bathing water standards twice, however it has passed each year since 2010; this may be due to a change in livestock management practices in the catchment area.

Name: Stephen Heaney

Job title: National Monitoring Team Officer

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What interested you in this field of work?

I have always had a keen interest in the environment. Working outdoors gives me the opportunity to spread the message to the general public.

Which bathing waters have you taken samples at?

I have undertaken sampling at approximately 30 bathing water sites ranging from Portobello down to Eyemouth.

How do you take the samples?

One sample pole is used for rivers and watercourses but a separate one is used for samples taken at sewage works. This stops the possibility of cross-contamination. The samples are taken in sterile 500ml bottles using a telescopic pole.

What happens after the samples are taken?

The bottles are stored in a cool-box and returned to the microbiology lab where the samples are analysed. The results are then distributed to various local councils, SEPA staff and the Scottish Government.

What are the most challenging aspects of this work?

One of the most challenging aspects of the job is the rather varied Scottish weather! But it is a terrific job and I wouldn’t swap it for anything. I’d still rather be out in the rain than in an office any day!

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