Think it's safe to go back in the water?
Scotland is not short of picturesque beaches, whether it is the St Andrews’ West Sands – made famous by the fi lm, Chariots of Fire – the long stretch at Machrihanish on the Mull of Kintyre, or the popular Silver Sands in Aberdour.
Even though the weather may not always be as kind here as other parts of the globe, Scottish beaches attract everything from hosts of wildlife to regular surfers and swimmers.
But in four years time, new regulations will toughen up the way we look at our beaches. No longer will the stretches of sand be judged on a simple pass or fail. Th ey will be ranked from excellent to poor – and bathers will be encouraged to stay away from those with the lowest ratings.
And according to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) there are 20 of the country’s beaches which it currently estimates would be in danger of receiving a poor rating.
Electronic warning signs are already in place at the beaches, giving people the most up to date information currently available on whether the water is safe.
Scotland’s bathing season runs from 1 June to 15 September. Rather than being a time when people are ‘allowed’ in the water, it marks the offi cial period when samples are taken to assess what bacteria it contains.
SEPA already produces an annual report on the quality of water at its beaches. Under this the locations are marked as a mandatory, guideline or fail – but the new regulations will be far more detailed.
New EU directives on bathing water quality replace the current rules which date back to 1976. From the summer of 2016, all of Scotland’s 83 designated beaches will have to display a star rating to give bathers information on what they can expect the quality to be like.
The new star ratings will be based on detailed analysis of four-years’ worth of data – meaning that this year is the fi rst of samples that will go towards the new regime.
For coastal waters to be given the top rating of excellent and awarded three stars there will have to be no more than 100 colony-forming units (cfu) intestinal enterococci per 100ml and 250 cfu per 100ml of Escherichia coli in 95 per cent of samples.
There is then a sliding scale, with grades of good, sufficient and poor.
So although the newest bathing season is just upon us, planning is already well under way for the season of 2016 – with SEPA aiming to have all its beaches up to ‘suffi cient’ at the very least.
It has prepared a ‘worst case scenario’ based on the most recent analysis. Although 29 beaches would be marked as excellent using current readings, including Monifeith, which was only made a designated bathing water last year, there are 20 sites which, as it stands, would be marked as at risk of being graded ‘poor’.
The sites include spots from across the country, Portobello West in Edinburgh is one – although Portobello Central next door would be rated as good.
Lossiemouth East in Moray, Kirkcaldy in Fife, Stonehaven in Aberdeenshire, Sandyhills in Dumfries and Galloway and Girvan in Ayrshire are also on the list.
Calum McPhail, SEPA’s Environment Quality Manager, told Holyrood: “Th e new directive is going to give much more consistent data of the bathing water because it’s going to look at the overall condition from four years’ worth of sampling.
“It won’t be based on a single sample pass/fail scenario, which is largely historical by the time the sample results are analysed and posted.
“On an annual basis, based on the four years’ worth of monitoring, it will look at 95 per cent of samples and put it into one of four water quality classifications; either excellent, good, suffi cient or poor.
“Our basic aim is to get all bathing waters to at least ‘sufficient’ by 2015. We might not get there but we are going to try our damndest.” He said the table of predictions and map of Scotland’s beaches is a “wake up call” to show what could happen, but added, a lot of work was already taking place to ensure the beaches could be brought up to standard. This has included working alongside Scottish Water to ensure its sewage outlets were not allowing untreated substances to leak into the water, and with the farming industry to ensure chemicals and other pollutants do not run off from the soil.
The main cause of poor bathing water quality is from diffuse pollution. Nutrients, soil, chemicals and faecal bacteria are washed from the land – particularly in periods of heavy rainfall, into surrounding rivers.
This becomes a serious problem when there are several discharge points and high levels of pollution can end up in the entry point of that river into the sea.
Three years ago SEPA set up a Diffuse Pollution Management Advisory Group, looking at 14 priority catchment areas. Staff from SEPA, alongside seconded staff from Scottish Water, walked the full length of each area to assess rural diffuse pollution and the information will be used to help advise farmers and land managers on how to reduce their impact on water sources.
Pollution can also come from combined sewer overflows, which are controlled by Scottish Water. During heavy rainfall, these discharge sewage into the water that has been diluted but only partially treated. Although they are essential to prevent flooding, in extended periods of heavy rain they can cause pollution problems.
Scottish Water’s 2010-15 investment programme includes 39 bathing water studies to assess whether any extra improvements are needed to comply with the EU directives.
Since 2000 it has invested in drainage infrastructure, particularly concentrating on the Meadowhead and Stevenston networks in Ayrshire, as well as across Edinburgh.
Mark Williams, Scottish Water’s Environmental Regulation and Climate Change Manager, said: “We are committed to ongoing investment to ensure our assets continue to support Scottish bathing water quality and are working closely with SEPA and the Marine Conservation Society to ensure Scotland’s bathing waters are protected.
“Analysis of bathing water failures show the principal reason for failure in 2011 is run-off from land. Scottish Water assets were not the main cause of failure at any Scottish bathing water, as set out in SEPA’s 2011 Bathing Water Report.
“A Scottish Water scheme offering financial support to land managers, owners and tenants has been launched to enhance drinking water for around 330,000 people in Scotland by reducing diffuse pollution. While this primarily is aimed at drinking water catchments, this will have a positive effect on the quality of the environment.
“Storm overflows exist to avoid flooding homes in times of heavy rainfall. We are investing heavily across Scotland to improve their performance.
“We urge customers across Scotland to be aware of the need to flush only sewage waste.
Other materials such as baby wipes, nappies and sanitary waste block our sewer network and cause subsequent pollution risks.” There has been heavy investment by SEPA in ensuring the public has as much information on bathing water as possible – and particular attention is being paid to monitoring the quality at the highlighted ‘at-risk’ sites.
While a beach being marked as poor in a single year is perhaps not too much of a problem for the agency, there are particularly serious ramifications if it continues to be given the lowest rating. Five years in a row will mean a permanent no-bathing sign has to be put up.
The Scottish Government has given nearly £1m over the last nine years to SEPA to help improve water quality. And two years ago, £500,000 was provided to increase the number of electronic message boards. There are now 23 of them across the country, including all the 20 problem sites that SEPA has highlighted.
As well as giving people up to the minute details of what the water quality is expected to be like, it can also help towards the final classification of the beach. Under the directive short-term pollution, brought on by something like a sustained period of heavy rainfall, can be discounted from the readings, as long as ample warning has been given to bathers.
McPhail says: “Up to maybe 15 per cent of your samples can be discounted on these occasions that the public have been informed and bathing isn’t taking place. That will moderate the worst of some of the samples, so that along with all the work going on in the catchments, and with Scottish Water’s investment programme, we’re expecting to see some considerable improvement. That 20 is very much a worst-case scenario, taking all samples as they are just now, with no improvements in place and no tools for the new directive starting to be operated.”
This year’s bathing season also marks the launch of more new technology for SEPA, with a new application for smartphones that allows people to immediately access a forecast of the day’s bathing water quality. The site www.bathingwaters.mobi will be up and running in time for 1 June and the agency is also negotiating with Apple for the app to be made available in the official app store for iPhone users.
Daily water quality predictions are posted on the electronic message boards from a central network at SEPA’s office in Perth. It is also used to update the agency’s website, its dedicated Beachline number and its smartphone app.
The system has also been used to give details on other environmental advice for beachgoers, including asking people to take their litter home and not feed seagulls.
And SEPA is confident it is on the right path, having already presented its plans for the way forward to the World Health Organisation at a committee in Geneva.
Surfers Against Sewage has been at the forefront of the campaign to clean up bathing water. Their campaign has been aided by a provocative series of adverts including a collaboration last year with M&C Saatchi highlighting its calls to cut the levels of sewage, litter and toxic chemicals in the sea.
Campaign director Andy Cummins said that the colder weather in Scotland was not putting people off using Scottish water and said more should be done to increase numbers.
He said: “Wet suit technology has developed, you can stay in the water for hours on end, even in February.
“We carried out research two years ago that showed 5 per cent of the Scottish people make use of the water. It is a significant amount of the population, but we would like to see it at 10, 15 or 20 per cent.” The group says more needs to be done to tackle pollution in waterflows and insists that even “partially treated” sewage that comes from overflows during heavy rain periods will still contain pathogens that can cause illness in users.
It says that unless it is fully treated using ultra-violet disinfection or microfiltration the micro-organisms in the water can cause infections, either ingested by mouth, or through the ears, eyes, nose or an open wound and SAS says bathers at beaches across Europe passing current water quality standards could still have a 15 per cent risk of contracting gastroenteritis.
In addition, its own research claimed surfers were more likely to contract hepatitis A than the general public.
Cummins adds: “The risks are well documented of bathing in pollution. Health risks include meningitis, septicaemia, botulism, e-coli and hepatitis A. Hepatitis A can survive 90 days in sea water. E coli up to 30 days.”
The organisation was formed in 1990 and had been fighting hard for tougher directives.
Cummins said: “This is something we really pushed for. We spent far too much time in Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Brussels, places where there is no surfing. But it was successful, this is a positive thing.
“We really need to focus in the next four years to make these improvements.” As well as improvements to sewage infrastructure and agriculture, he added: “We can all play our part to take pressure off water systems. Every time you leave the tap on while brushing your teeth, that is clean water taking up space in the sewage system.” But how does Scotland compare to the rest of Europe? McPhail insists the country is not “the dirty man of Europe”.
“But we have made vast improvements since the 1980s, we’ve come from a place where we’ve probably got more local pollution pressures than other countries have, we’ve got a lot of intense agriculture and we’ve got a lot of sewage infrastructure that’s being addressed.
“In terms of the rest of the UK, the Northwest and parts of England and Wales are quite similar to us. The further south you go, the better the weather is.” Notwithstanding the challenge the weather presents, there are still many places across the country which are recommended to visitors.
The latest European Bathing Water report published this month has shown an overall improvement in quality of both coastal and inland swimming waters across the UK. Out of 617 UK sites, 511 of the beaches achieved the top grade and 97 per cent met mandatory EU standards.
There are 45 sites marked out in this year’s Good Beach Guide, compiled by the Marine Conservation Society. Although many of them overlap with the sites outlined by SEPA, others, such as St Cyrus in Aberdeenshire and five beaches in Shetland, are also recommended.
But a good beach is not purely about the quality of the water and perhaps one of the most recognisable aspects is the sight of a Blue Flag waving in the breeze.
The Blue Flag accreditation scheme has been running since the 1970s and is recognised across the world. It has been handed out to 3,009 beaches and 639 marinas in 46 countries in Europe, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, the Caribbean and South Africa.
The flags change yearly after being put to a judging panel run by the Foundation of Environmental Education and just a small drop in quality can see it being taken away from a beauty spot. In Scotland, the scheme is run by Keep Scotland Beautiful.
Holyrood can reveal that eight beaches are to be awarded the Blue Flag in Scotland this year for the new bathing season. Six in Fife; Aberdour Silver Sands, Ruby Bay and the Harbour in Elie, Burntisland, Leven, and Kinghorn Pettycur; Coldingham in the Borders and Broughty Ferry in Dundee.
But the remit for these beaches goes far beyond what the sea is like. In fact only six of the 32 criteria relate to the water quality. The rest relate to the amount of litter, toilet facilities and safety – including provision of lifeguards.
And the water standards themselves do not just take into account the bacteria that may be lurking in the water, it also refers to aspects like the pH value and salinity.
But just like the water quality directives, the Blue Flag criteria are raising the bar all the time and next year it is going up even further.
Although this is good news for visitors to beaches, who should know that it means the place they leave their towel is of the highest quality, it is expected to see Scotland lose out.
Over the last few years, Scotland has had about seven or eight Blue Flags a year, with some losing them, but others gaining. But Suzanne Roberts, campaigns officer at Keep Scotland Beautiful, said the higher standards could mean the country losing about half its flags.
“Based on results from 2009 to 2011, it will be half,” she says. “And that doesn’t take into account this year’s results. If we get a bad summer then we could see less.
“It’s the same throughout the UK. England are looking at a 30 per cent decrease.” But despite this, there is a lot of confidence in the quality of beaches across the country.
Roberts told Holyrood: “I would say that in the last ten years the water quality standards around Scotland have greatly improved. The number of beaches being managed to award status have quadrupled, which means that people are getting a better experience when they go, because these places are being managed to expectations and I think the future is really bright.
“But I think we have to get away from trying to make the bathing water environment a sterile one.” In effect, she says, you could have a beach streaming with litter, but still marked highly for the quality of its water.
“What’s more off-putting to a visitor coming to this country?” she asks: “Or a community who have a real pride in their beach environment, going out and seeing that on their doorstep. There are some very serious issues out there which are to do with our behaviour and are within our control and I think, perhaps, we’re not tackling those issues as best we could.” She adds: “The Blue Flag is meant to recognise a beach which is used by large numbers of people who require facilities.
If you’re going to spend the day at the beach with the family and there are no toilets provided, you’re actually negatively impacting on the environmental quality of the environment.” The standard is set deliberately high, because the beaches have to compete with sun-kissed sands and the clear blue sea of the Caribbean and other tropical climes, but the organisation also has a lesser award to recognise good quality beaches elsewhere in Scotland.
In addition to the Blue Flags, there are also 61 seaside awards handed out to smaller, more remote or lesser used beaches that are not necessarily EU designated sites – because they do not receive enough visitors a year – but are still popular as tourist or recreation spots.
Roberts added: “Many of our Scottish beaches are used for other things, it’s not always that warm, they’ll be used for dog walking, they’ll be used for picnics, they’ll be used for paddling.
“The actual bathing is something that only really happens on the really good days, by requesting the seaside awards, the information provided along the lines of the European directive, the revised one, we’re giving the information for people so that they can make the decision.”