97.1% of bathing waters in England have passed water quality standards following testing at over 400 designated sites carried out by the Environment Agency (EA).

The results, released yesterday (30 November), show that for the 2022 bathing season, 72.1% of beaches and inland waters met the ‘Excellent’ standard, the highest since new stringent standards were introduced in 2015.

92.8% of beaches and inland waters gained an ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’ rating, while 4% achieved the minimum ‘Sufficient’ rating. This compares with 99% passing the required standards in 2021.

Bathing waters are monitored for sources of pollution known to be a risk to bathers’ health, with up to 20 samples taken from each site during the bathing season. Each sample is tested for bacteria, specifically E coli and intestinal enterococci.

The EA has been monitoring bathing water sites since the 1990s, and in this time there have been significant improvements. In the early 1990s, for example, just 28% of bathing waters met the highest standards in force at that time. Based on today’s data, over 97% of bathing waters meet the minimum standard, with 72% reaching the highest standards. While progress has been made, there is still much more to be done to ensure cleaner and healthier waters for people to enjoy. The Environment Agency is clear that more needs to be done on the part of water companies, and is taking robust action to support businesses, farmers and councils to help clean up our waters.

Since 2015 the EA has required water companies to install Event Duration Monitors at bathing water sites. This captures data on the frequency and duration of storm overflow discharges, with all the data published online so the public can see what is happening in their local area. More than 12,000 of England’s 15,000 storm overflows now have these monitors, and the remaining 3,000 will have them by end of next year.

As part of the Government’s Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, water companies must improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water by 2035; and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high priority nature sites by 2035. The Government has also committed to consult on policy options in 2023 to review the Bathing Water Regulations and revise guidance to make applying for new bathing water designations easier.

Knowing more about water quality helps people make informed decisions on when and where to swim. The EA’s Swimfo website provides detailed information on each of the 400+ bathing waters in England, and notifies bathers when Pollution Risk Forecasts have been issued.

Environment Agency Chair Alan Lovell said:

“Public confidence in our bathing waters is key to the tourism industry as well as people’s health and wellbeing.

“Overall bathing water quality has improved massively over the last decade due to targeted and robust regulation from the Environment Agency and the work carried out by others. In most places it is now better than it has been for many years, but there is much more to be done to ensure cleaner and healthier waters for people to enjoy.

“We know that improvements can take time and investment from the water industry, farmers and local communities, but where the investment is made, standards can improve.”

Water Minister Rebecca Pow said:

“I welcome the good news that more bathing waters than ever have met the highest standard of excellent at just over 72% of all our bathing waters – an increase from last year – but there is more to be done to improve our bathing waters and we must not rest on our laurels.

“That is why we are going further and faster than any other government to protect and enhance these precious sites.

“We have brought in strict targets to protect our bathing waters and new rules to crack down on water pollution will require water companies to deliver a £56 billion infrastructure improvement programme – the largest in their history.”

This is the first year that the Wolvercote Mill Stream at Port Meadow, Oxford, and the East Cowes Esplanade in the Isle of Wight have been given official classification after being added to the list of bathing waters in 2022.

Designation does not guarantee clean water for swimming. Bringing rivers up to bathing water standards will be a challenge and places greater responsibility on farmers, water companies and communities to remove pollution that is harmful to swimmers.

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