Sampling our shores: Reflections on the end of a challenging bathing water season

Back in May, teams across the country stepped into their dry suits and into the sea to collect important samples from our 109 designated bathing waters in Wales.

Over the course of the summer this has been a matter of routine for many of our staff, come rain or shine, ensuring that each bathing water is tested at least 10 times.

And rain was the theme of the season sadly. According to the Met Office monthly weather report for July, the UK overall rainfall total for July was 170% of average overall, making it the wettest July since 2009.

While the wet and wild conditions may have been good for the surf, the unseasonable weather has inevitably impacted on the quality of our bathing waters at times this summer.

Dirty water from our homes, roads, streets and fields is washed into our streams and rivers during heavy rainfall, before it is washed out to sea.

Storm overflows discharge diluted sewage into our waters when the sewers become overwhelmed from unusually heavy rainfall.

Surfers Against Sewage receive data from water companies when storm overflows spill, and provide pollution alerts through their Safer Seas and Rivers Service.

Pollution comes from many different sources

The weather isn’t the only thing our teams have had to contend with this season.

Early in July, Anglesey County Council temporarily closed the bathing water at Cemaes Bay following an agricultural pollution incident which killed a number of fish on the Afon Wygyr, and impacted water quality on the beach.  Our staff are continuing to investigate the circumstances around this incident.

In early August, our routine sampling at Llandudno, Rhos on sea and Colwyn Bay flagged elevated levels of bacteria in the water, prompting Conwy County Council to temporarily close bathing waters there. An investigation ensued but no obvious cause could be identified. Samples taken a few days later came back normal and the bathing waters were reopened.

These are just a snapshot of the some of the challenges we face. Every incident report we receive is assessed, and where appropriate investigated.

Identifying the cause of a pollution isn’t always easy, as was the case on the north Wales coast, despite much investigation into nearby discharges and surface water drains.

In Barry, south Wales, we are working on a project with Vale of Glamorgan Council which will provide real-time information to bathers about predicted water quality at two popular beaches, Jackson's Bay and Whitmore Bay (Barry Island).

The project aims to use sampling data, along with meteorological data, such as rainfall, UV radiance and river level data etc to develop statistical models to better understand what influences water quality at the beaches and predict short-term pollution events that could have an impact on water quality. This will be similar to systems already in place across Wales

Sometimes all is not as it seems

Sometimes, what looks and smells like pollution, is not pollution.

In June, before the summer washout, the country basked in glorious sunshine and as temperatures rose, we began to receive reports of a thick, brown, foul-smelling froth along the Cardigan coastline.

Understandably people were alarmed, but after sending samples off to the lab for testing it was found to be harmless, naturally occurring brown algae. While unpleasant, algal blooms like these will not impact on bathing water quality.

You can find out more about how to spot naturally occurring algal blooms on our website.

What you see (and smell!) is important

Like all publicly funded bodies, our resources are limited. We focus on the incidents which have the most serious impact, and where we can make the most difference.

Incidents reports from communities, businesses or holidaymakers are vital in helping us to build a picture about long running pollution impacts.

So if ever in doubt, please don’t hesitate to report something of concern to us. You can do this by calling our 24/7 incident hotline on 03000 65 3000 or via an incident form on our website.

Protecting our bathing waters for the future

Our bathing waters are so important – for our health and wellbeing, for our economy and for the plants and wildlife they support.

Wales boasts some of the best bathing waters in the UK, and we’re proud of our record with bathing water quality. Last year, 99% of our bathing waters met the required standards, with 80% meeting the top criteria.

A lot of work has taken place to bring our waters up to this standard. This includes the work of our teams and others investigating and tackling local sources of pollution as well as investment by Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water. The following graph shows how our bathing waters have improved over the years.

Graph showing bathing water compliance trends 2004-2022

Work to improve our bathing waters continues. We are taking action across the board to reduce pollution from familiar sources such as agricultural pollution and sewage discharges.

While we can’t pre-empt this year’s classifications, our teams agree that this has been one of the more challenging years for bathing waters.

With all samples now collected, the results will be used, along with samples from previous years, to grade the water as excellent, good, sufficient or poor as per the UK Bathing Water regulations.

The classifications will be announced by the Welsh Government later this Autumn, following which we will update all the bathing water profiles on our website.

You can read the full bathing water report for last year (2022) on our website.

And find a designated bathing water in your area using our interactive map.

Small actions we can all take

Enjoy our beaches and bathing waters, but leave no trace behind. Be sure to take any litter or used barbeques off the sand and into a nearby bin.

If you have a dog-friendly beach near you, be sure to clean up any dog poo and leave only pawprints behind.

In the home, be careful about what you flush down the toilet or pour down the sink. Don’t flush wet wipes or pour cooking fats down the sink. These can cause blockages, or ‘fat bergs’ which cause storm overflows to discharge sewage into our waters unnecessarily.

You can find more information on how you can help via Dŵr Cymru’s Stop the Block campaign.

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