British beaches were once something to be proud of but according to Surfers Against Sewage (S.A.S) almost 1/3rd (32.3%) of English and Welsh designated bathing beaches failed to meet UK guideline standards for water quality during the 2008 bathing season.
An article on the S.A.S website states that out of 495 designated bathing waters in England and Wales 160 could not meet the tougher of two water quality standards set by the European Union to protect public health and the environment from faecal pollution at bathing waters.
You would think that these guidelines had just come in to existence but they have actually been set for 32 years under the 1976 EU Bathing Water Directive. It is understood that changes in UK weather conditions are causing the problem, making it increasingly difficult to meet the standards set out by the directive.
In the last 2 years Britain has seen extremely wet summers, which has highlighted how vulnerable our nation’s beaches are to the adverse effects to water quality after periods of heavy rainfall. The government have put massive investment into the nation’s sewerage infrastructure but it has had little effect on curving the problem of water pollution.
The S.A.S point out in their article that a solution which reduces the impact of heavy rainfall on future water quality results, should not just fall on the shoulders of the nations water companies but it will require co-operation from a large number of authorities.
Pollution from sewerage plants continues to be a problem especially during wet weather but there is also the problem of run-off water from both agricultural and urban areas. This highlights how diverse the sources of pollution can be.
As consumers we also have a role to play. Wasting water in your home adds to the burden of your local sewage treatment works. Combine water wastage from the home with normal wastewater flows and any storm water from a heavy down pour and the majority of treatment sewerage works don’t have the capacity to ‘treat’ the water. Instead it enters local rivers and the sea with higher bacterial levels. This obviously increases the publics’ health risks when using the water for recreation.
There is a lot that we can do to help and it doesn’t necessary mean charging in and demanding more capital expenditure by the water industry. The S.A.S suggest the focusing on campaigning 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 would be much more effective. By taking this approach it is more likely 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 more aware of where and when they are most susceptible to illness through contact with poor water quality. S.A.S says they 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”.