News: How clean are Europe’s beaches and bathing waters?

[tweetmeme Brussels, 10 June 2010.  Clean bathing waters are vital for key economic sectors such as tourism and for plant and animal life. The annual bathing water report presented by the European Commission and the European Environment Agency shows that 96 % of coastal bathing areas and 90 % of bathing sites in rivers and lakes complied with minimum standards in 2009. It also describes where to obtain detailed and up-to-date information on bathing sites.

Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said, ‘Over the last thirty years, EU and national legislation has significantly improved the quality of Europe’s bathing waters but our work does not end here. Despite our decade-long track record of high quality, we need to keep up the effort constantly to both improve and maintain what we have achieved.’

Professor Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency, added, ‘Further improvement to Europe’s bathing water quality requires citizen involvement. This means, first and foremost, finding out and understanding the current state of our environment and then demanding cleaner water from relevant authorities. Our web-based tools provide citizens easy access to environmental information as well as a platform to voice their observations.’

Efforts to improve the quality of bathing waters should be seen in the context of Europe’s efforts to achieve good ecological and environmental status in accordance with the EU Water and Marine Framework Directives.

2009 results confirm a long-term upward trend

Of the 20 000 bathing areas monitored throughout the European Union in 2009, two thirds were on the coast and the rest were at rivers and lakes. Compliance with mandatory values (minimum quality requirements) at coastal sites increased from 80 % in 1990 to 96 % in 2009. For inland waters, the increase was even greater, rising from 52 % to 90 %.

Between 2008 and 2009 there was a slight deterioration in the number of bathing waters meeting minimum standards, with reductions of less than 1 percentage point (pp) for coastal sites and 3 pps for inland bathing waters. Compliance with the more stringent ‘guide values’ between 2008 and 2009 increased by slightly less than 1 pp for coastal sites to reach 89 % but decreased by less than 3 pps for inland waters to 71 %. Such annual fluctuations are not unusual by the standards of recent years.

Almost all the coastal bathing sites in Cyprus, France, Greece and Portugal complied with the more stringent guide values[1]. Only 2 % of EU coastal bathing sites were banned in 2009, mostly in Italy. Although inland bathing sites show greater variation in water quality, a large majority of the inland sites in Finland, France, Germany and Sweden also complied with guide values.

Fourteen Member States monitoring under the new Bathing Water Directive

To determine their quality, bathing waters are tested against a number of physical, chemical and microbiological parameters. Member States must comply with the mandatory values set out in the Bathing Water Directive[2] but may choose instead to adhere to the stricter (non-binding) guide values.

In 2006 a new Bathing Water Directive[3] took effect, which updated the parameters and monitoring provisions in line with the latest scientific knowledge. The new Directive places greater emphasis on providing information to the public on the quality of bathing areas. Member States have until 2015 to implement the new Directive fully but fourteen Member States (Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden) already monitored their bathing areas during the 2009 bathing season according to the new Directive’s requirements.

Questions and answers on bathing water policy

How does the European Union help to clean up Europe’s beaches?

The European Commission provides the framework and the impetus for Member States to improve the quality of their bathing waters. It is the responsibility of Member States to comply with European legislation and improve the quality of their beaches and fresh water bathing sites. Every year the Commission publishes a report outlining the quality of beaches throughout the European Union based on monitoring results from the previous bathing season. The aim of the report is to make public the quality of bathing areas on the continent, giving European citizens the chance to assess for themselves where bathing may be safe.

What is the difference between guide and imperative values?

Data on bathing water is divided into three main categories: those that comply with mandatory values, those that comply with guide values and those that do not comply at all.

Compliance with mandatory values refers to the minimum water quality standards as laid out in the 1976 Bathing Water Directive. These will be fully replaced by 2015.

Compliance with the more stringent guide values means that beaches comply with the basic requirements of the Directive and also with more robust standards of water quality.

And not complying means that those bathing areas do not even meet the mandatory requirements.

What can we learn about the quality of bathing sites today from information from the previous season?

The aim of the report is not to provide real-time information on bathing areas, but rather to present water quality data for last year’s bathing season compared to previous bathing seasons. This allows readers to study the trend in water quality of the bathing areas they may be considering, thereby making an informed choice based on the history of the data.

Is there current information on bathing water quality available?

The Bathing Water Report corresponds to an enormous task by all Member States to continuously monitor and report the quality of their bathing areas. This enormous volume of data and analysis is then compiled by the European Environment Agency to present a holistic view of bathing water quality throughout the European Union.

Once the new Bathing Water Directive (see below for more details) is fully applicable, Member States will be obliged to inform the public of the ‘real-time’ status of bathing water quality, which can be displayed at beach sites, or via the radio, the internet and television and teletext services. Such information will be mandatory by 2012.

What does it mean when a site is insufficiently sampled? Is it still safe?

Bathing areas designated as insufficiently sampled are not necessarily unsafe for bathing. It simply indicates that not enough data has been collected from those sites to test for potentially harmful microbes.

Some Member States have banned bathing in a number of bathing areas. Is this good practice to protect people’s health?

In most circumstances it may be well justified to ban a bathing site, but banning a site that doesn’t comply with quality standards cannot be systematically used to avoid cleaning bathing areas. The necessary remediation action needs to be taken to allow these areas to be reopened as soon as possible.

Why have some Member States reported under the current legislation and some under the new Bathing Water Directive?

New European legislation on bathing water was adopted in 2006. This updates the measures of the 1976 Bathing Water Directive and simplifies its management and surveillance methods. This new legislation was transposed into national law in 2008 but Member States have until December 2014 to fully implement it.

During the transition period both Directives will be in place simultaneously. At present the only legally binding instrument is the 1976 Directive. The 1976 Directive will be repealed on 31 December 2014.

Member States can choose to report under either Directive until the 2012 bathing season, when they will have to report under the new Bathing Water Directive. In 2009, fourteen Member States (Cyprus, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden) monitored their bathing areas according to the new Directive’s requirements.

Does this have an effect on the results?

There are transparent rules on how to compare data under the old and the new Directive in order to provide citizens with a clear picture.

Why was the Bathing Water Directive revised?

The 1976 Bathing Water Directive served us well, but scientific knowledge and best practice from 1976 are now outdated. The 2006 Directive is based on new data on the effects of bacteriological contamination and 25 years of implementing the 1976 Directive. The aim was not to move the goalposts, but to bring the legislation in line with the latest scientific information and best practice in beach management and communication.

What are the main elements of the 2006 directive?

The essential elements for the new Directive were to:

1.  Update the parameters according to latest scientific knowledge;

2.  Simplify the list of parameters;

3.  Improve the management of bathing sites;

4.  Improve information provided to the public;

5.  Streamline and increase the cost effectiveness of monitoring programmes.

What are the main features of the 2006 Bathing Water Directive?

The new Directive lays down provisions for more sophisticated monitoring and classification of bathing water. It also provides for extensive public information and participation in line with the Århus Convention, as well as for comprehensive and modern management measures:

–       The 2006 Directive requires Member States to draw up a management plan for each site to minimise risks to bathers based on an assessment of the sources of contamination that are likely to affect it. Users of the site should be actively involved in developing the management plan. Where bathing sites have a history of poor water quality, preventive measures should be taken to close the bathing area, for instance when certain weather conditions are predicted.

–       Information on a bathing site’s quality classification, the results of water quality monitoring, the site’s management plan and other relevant information is to be made readily available to the public, both through displays at the site and through the media and internet.

–       While the current Directive requires regular monitoring of 19 pollutants or other parameters (for example water colour), the revised Directive reduces this list to just two microbiological indicators of faecal contamination: E. Coli and Intestinal Enterococci. This simplification reflects recognition that faecal matter, for instance due to inadequate sewage treatment and pollution from animal waste, is the primary health threat to bathers.

–       The classification of water quality at a bathing site will be determined on the basis of a three-year trend instead of a single year’s result as is currently the case. This means that the classification will be less susceptible to bad weather or one-off incidents. Where water quality is consistently good over a three-year period, the frequency of sampling may be reduced, thereby cutting costs. It provides for the assessment of water quality on the basis of the set of water quality data compiled during the bathing seasons.

–       The Directive requires “bathing profiles” to be drawn up describing the characteristics of the bathing water and identifying sources of pollution. The presence of pollution may result in needing to regularly review the status of the bathing, ban bathing if needed, and inform the public.

–       To ease the monitoring burden for Member States, the new Directive reduces monitoring frequencies if the quality of bathing areas proves to be constantly “good” or “excellent”.

What is the relationship between the EU’s bathing water policy and the Blue Flag campaign?

The Blue Flag is not a label awarded by the EU. The only link between the EU’s bathing water policy and the Blue Flag is that EU criteria are used as the basis for the Blue Flag’s water quality criteria. However, the Blue Flag programme uses additional criteria beyond water quality for awarding the Blue Flag to specific beaches.

For further information on the 2010 EU Bathing Water Report, see:

Citation:  Press Release of the European Commission IP/10/717 and Memorandum of the European Commission MEMO/10/248

[1] Delays in commissioning the monitoring programme in Greece meant that 830 bathing waters monitored in 2008 were not adequately monitored in 2009 and are excluded from the overall European results.

[2] Directive 76/160/EEC on the quality of bathing water

[3] Directive 2006/7/EC on the management of bathing water quality

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ryan Eriksson, Professor Paul. Professor Paul said: How clean are Europe's beaches & bathing waters? #Oceans #Seas #Water #Sustainability #Environment #Tourism […]

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