Bathing water sea change on the horizon – working towards a new classification approach


Scotland’s beaches include unspoilt stretches of sand along the east coast, smaller coves set in a more rugged coastline to the north, many popular beaches in the west and also a few freshwater beach areas. Whether it’s swimming or sailing, surfing or sub-aqua, our coastal and inland waters are enjoyed by a wide variety of users. So what will the effect be of changes next year to the way we classify and report the quality of our bathing waters?

Scotland’s bathing season has now officially begun, and runs until mid-September. We have 84 designated bathing waters, including Collieston which is newly designated for 2014, and all of these will be sampled by SEPA throughout the summer until the season ends on 15 September. Across Scotland, over the three and a half month season, more than 1,500 bathing water samples will be collected and analysed, with results available on our website.

As in previous years our electronic bathing water signage system, one of the largest real time public information systems in the UK after roads and rail, will continue to operate daily at 23 locations, informing beach visitors on the predicted water quality from 10am and throughout the day of their visit. Information can also be found via the SEPA mobile phone bathing waters app, our mobile site ( and through our Beachline phone number (08452 30 30 98).

However a significant change is on the horizon. After the 2015 sampling season the way we describe bathing water quality at all our bathing waters is changing. A new system, which is standardised across all European bathing waters (of which there are approximately 22,000), will happen in Scotland from 2015.

This will be the last year that bathing waters are graded under the current European Directive as mandatory, guideline or fail, as the final implementation steps for the revised Bathing Water Directive comes into effect next year. So what does this new directive mean for Scotland’s bathing waters?

The new directive
In March 2006 the revised Bathing Water Directive (2006/7/EC) came into force. This was enacted in Scotland by the Bathing Waters (Scotland) Regulations 2008 which came into effect in May 2008. Key features include increased provision of public information and tighter microbiological standards to be met by 2015.

Different parts of the directive have been implemented over the last few years, but the most significant water quality assessment changes come into force in 2015.

2011 2012 2015 2016
Publication of bathing water profiles Switch to two new microbial parameters as standard across the EU Report the first new EU water quality classifications by the end of 2015 against the revised Bathing Water Directive standards and calculation methods Post the annual water quality classes and information symbols at all beaches from the start of each season – on going
Production of a monitoring calendar Summary information from each bathing water profile to be posted at beach locations Rolling classifications using (normally) four years monitoring data will be reported annually
Action, where required, on cyanobacterial (bluegreen algae) blooms, macroalgae (seaweed), marine phytoplankton and other waste. Implementation of real-time short term pollution signage advice and discounting
New abnormal situation rules to apply

We are committed to achieving full compliance with EU Bathing Water Directive standards and are working closely with others to deliver a reduction in risk from both urban and rural sources of pollution. Some of our key partners in this include the Scottish Government, Scottish Water, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and the agricultural community, as identified in the Scottish Government’s Bathing Water Strategy for Scotland.

What’s the difference?
In future, bathing water quality will be described by a quality classification statement which will be based on a several years of monitoring. This will indicate the status of the normal water quality condition for each location, rather than the current old system which relies on single samples, with results posted a few days after sampling.
Currently our bathing waters are classified with the following:

  • each season starts with a ‘clean sheet’;
  • monitoring is for a single season with spot samples;
  • pass or fail results – one is a warning, two are an overall location fail;
  • the results at the end-of-season determine overall annual compliance;
  • 2014 is the last year of this assessment system.

Under the revised Bathing Water Directive:

  • classifications will be calculated at the end 2015 for display at the start of the 2016 season;
  • the previous standards of mandatory and guideline have been replaced by classifications of excellent, good, sufficient and poor, based normally on a four year data set;
  • the total number of samples used over four years is much increased from the single year approach and better describes the general quality of each location;
  • water quality classification applies for the whole season;
  • percentile statistic – more robust science;
  • the overall condition of a location is described through bathing water profiles.

Other changes


Following recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO), changes have been made across the EU to the type of water quality indicator bacteria monitored. In place of the previous coliform and faecal streptococci standards, the revised directive sets standards for Escherichia coli (e-coli) and intestinal enterococci. These have more stringent, health-related standards, making compliance with the new directive significantly tighter.

During the period 2012 to 2014 we have, and will, report using these new parameters but against the standards prescribed in the original Bathing Water Directive (76/160/EEC).

Sampling schedules (the monitoring calendar) are now set in advance of the bathing season, but there is now a five day window, including the date in the monitoring calendar, when a sample can be taken. The general sample frequency per season will be maintained close to at present although the directive allows for reduced sampling. Because classifications will be calculated on normally four years data, the confidence in final class values will be high and at most sites will be based on around 80 data points rather than the current annual 20 single samples.

At sites which have daily real time forecasting of bathing water quality and electronic beach message signage we can use the allowed five day sampling window to avoid sampling when the sign gives a warning of poor water quality and we have actively advised against bathing.
Most of the time and indeed at all non-signage sites we sample on the date in the monitoring calendar unless there is an unexpected operational reason, for example, a vehicle breakdown. In 2013 there were four occasions where this five day provision was used.

Longer term classes and designation

In the event of five consecutive ‘poor’ classifications, “permanent” advice against bathing must be put in place and a sign will state that this is the case, giving the reasons for this decision. In effect, the site will no longer be a designated bathing water until conditions improve and can be shown to meet at least the sufficient EU class conditions.

The first year this could happen, if anywhere, will be at the start of the 2021 season. Permanent advice against bathing may also be given between 2015 and 2020 if achieving ‘sufficient’ is considered to be infeasible or disproportionately expensive.

Why do bathing waters fail?
The success of bathing water seasons in Scotland is very weather dependent, as changeable weather patterns and heavy summer rains can have a negative impact on water quality.
Diffuse pollution is recognised as the largest pollution pressure on the water environment in Scotland, but it can be difficult to identify and control.

The risk of diffuse pollution is worse during rainfall because nutrients, soil, chemicals and faecal bacteria can be washed from land into the surrounding water environment. Single discharge points might not seem to be an issue, but several combined across a whole river catchment can significantly affect water quality, including at designated bathing waters. Land and run-off management practices play a pivotal role in diffuse pollution management.

More information about diffuse pollution is available on our website.

Another source of pollution at beaches can be combined sewer overflows. During heavy rainfall sewer overflows, which discharge diluted but minimally treated sewage to watercourses and coastal waters, are essential to prevent flooding in urban areas. However, during extended periods of rain or intense summer downpours, which are not uncommon in Scotland, the combined impact of sewer overflows in a catchment can have a negative effect on water quality.

Last year, all our designated bathing waters in Scotland passed the current directive compliance requirements. And while this was particularly good news, it also confirms the key influence which weather has on our bathing water results. Last summer, despite a few periods of heavy rain in June and July in the north and west, Scotland enjoyed a good run of dry months, and with lower than normal heavy rainfall events and there was less water running off the land to carry contaminants into streams, burns and rivers.

Initial estimate of potential 2015 classifications
It’s really too early to make confident predictions about what the final 2015 classifications are likely to be, as they will use two more years of data (2014 and 2015 seasons) and including other technical calculation rules.

It is important to be cautionary about these estimates and we can only regard them as potential classifications mainly for the following reasons:

The four year period from 2010 to 2013 includes two years prior to 2012 when parts of the revised Bathing Water Directive were not available for implementation.

Since 2012 our electronic signs have enabled us to legitimately discount (from the overall classification dataset) a few samples collected during non-recommended bathing days. These were recognised short-term pollution events, when there was a public warning system in place to inform prospective bathers of potentially poorer water quality. This provision was not available for the years 2010 and 2011.

There has been substantial ongoing investment by Scottish Water under the Quality and Standards program since 2000. As more improvements come online these will be reflected in improved water quality.

The rural diffuse pollution plan ensures that key stakeholders in Scotland work in a co-ordinated way to reduce diffuse pollution from rural sources. Again, as more improvements come online this will be reflected in improved water quality.

However, if we estimate under the revised Bathing Water Directive now, using data from 2010 to 2013, the classifications below are what 83 of our 84 Scottish bathing waters would achieve. As Collieston is a new site for 2014, a projected calculation is currently not possible.

It is encouraging that already more than 75% of our existing bathing waters would be sufficient, good or excellent under the revised directive classifications.

Excellent Good Sufficient Poor
Aberdour (Silver Sands) Aberdeen Aberdour (Harbour) Ayr (South Beach)
Achmelvich Arbroath (West Links) Balmeadie Cruden Bay
Anstruther, Billow Ness Broughty Ferry Brighouse Bay Dhoon Bay
Broad Sands Burntisland Dunbar(East) Eyemouth
Crail (Roome Bay) Carnoustie Ettrick Bay, Bute Fisherrow West
Culzean Carrick Fraserburgh (Tiger Hill) Heads of Ayr
Dornoch Beach Coldingham Girvan Irvine
Dunnet Cullen Bay Leven East Kinghorn (Harbour)
Elie (Ruby Bay) Dores, Loch Ness Longniddry Kirkcaldy (Seafield)
Findhorn Dunbar (Belhaven) Luss Bay Lossiemouth East
Ganavan Elie (Harbour) and Earlsferry Millport Bay, Cumbrae Monifeith
Gullane Fraserburgh (Philorth) North Berwick (Milsey Bay) Mossyard
Loch Morlich Inverboyndie Peterhead (Lido) Nairn (Central)
Pease Bay Kinghorn (Pettycur) Seamill Nairn (East)
Seacliff Kingsbarns Southerness Portobello (West)
Largs (Pencil Beach) St Andrews (East Sands) Prestwick
Lunan Bay St Andrews (West Sands) Rockcliffe
Lunderston Bay Thurso Bay (Central) Saltcoats/Ardrossan
Machrihanish Whitesands Sandyhills
Maidens Yellowcraig Stonehaven
North Berwick (West)
Portobello (Central)
Seton Sands
Troon (South Beach)

Sites which seem to have improved from potentially poor in 2008 to good or sufficient by 2013 are Aberdeen, Brighouse Bay, Carrick, Ettrick Bay, Girvan, Luss, Portobello (Central), Rosehearty and Southerness. However, it is estimated that two sites could have deteriorated from sufficient to poor – Nairn (two sites) and SEPA is aware of a need to ensure that there is adequate improvement planning.

What is being done to make things better?
SEPA has been working for a number of years with the Scottish Government and other stakeholders, such as Scottish Water, individual land managers and their representative organisations, to protect and promote our bathing waters. Examples include:

  • A new programme, building on earlier initiatives, of rural diffuse pollution work started in March 2010. For the first phase we identified 14 diffuse priority catchments, containing some of Scotland’s most important water for conservation, drinking water, bathing and fishing. You can find out more on our website.


  • To minimise the impact of combined sewer overflows on water quality we impose conditions requiring sewage litter and debris removal and on the location and frequency of their operations. We continue to work closely with Scottish Government, Scottish Water and the water industry to ensure that planned capital investment programmes aimed at upgrading sewerage infrastructure throughout the country are prioritised to maximise environmental benefits.


  • More information on the changes in catchments that are causing an improvement in water quality in 2013 are available on pages 29 – 39 of the Bathing Water 2013 report.

Improving Scotland’s water environment remains a priority for us and we continue to work with our partners to improve bathing water quality, not only to help bring all our bathing waters up to the required standard by 2015, but to make our summer visits to the beach safer and more enjoyable.


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