Last year’s disastrous summer casting a shadow on our sun-soaked beaches

Sunshine can make water cleaner – now if only beach-goers can behave

Swimmers and sunbathers on Portmarnock beach enjoy the long-running fine weather. The expectation of a bumper year for water quality could be scuppered by beach-goers – Fingal County Council collected 3,000 bags of rubbish left on beaches last weekend, for example. Photograph: Alan Betson

Swimmers and sunbathers on Portmarnock beach enjoy the long-running fine weather. The expectation of a bumper year for water quality could be scuppered by beach-goers – Fingal County Council collected 3,000 bags of rubbish left on beaches last weekend, for example. Photograph: Alan Betson

Fri, Jul 19, 2013, 06:02

Surfers and hardy souls will scoff, but given the poor summers of recent years the quality of beach water has been somewhat irrelevant for most people

Not so this year. Irish beaches have been thronged with luminously white, soon to be lobster red, bodies which clearly haven’t seen decent weather in almost a decade.

But what state are our beaches in? Is it safe to go back in the water?

For some areas there was bad news earlier this year from two separate sources – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and An Taisce.

The EPA’s Bathing Water Quality report, published at the beginning of May, recorded a drop in the number of beaches reaching the minimum standards. There was also a drop in those achieving “good” water standards, with 91 beaches meeting the standard, down from 112.

Towards the end of the month the Blue Flag awards were announced. Governed by the European Foundation of Environmental Education and administered in Ireland by An Taisce, the flags are awarded on the basis of 32 criteria. The results were not good.

There was a 15 per cent drop in the number of blue flags, with 13 beaches losing their flags.

This all sounds very off-putting, but does not mean Irish beaches are dirty, says EPA senior scientist Peter Webster.

“Most of our beaches are in a very good condition in terms of cleanliness, and a certainly a lot better than they were a few decades ago.”

Bad weather
He says investment in sewerage infrastructure and improved agricultural practice have made a huge difference to water quality and relatively few beaches have sewage pollution as a particular problem. The main reason results are worse this year was bad weather last year.

“The results published in May are based on tests from the 2012 bathing season. Last year it started raining on the June bank holiday and it didn’t stop. Out of 107 days of the bathing season, it rained for about 80.”

Large amounts of rainfall caused the overflow of some sewerage systems, which presents a particular problem for urban beaches, while in remote rural beaches heavy rains resulted in a run-off from fields causing animal manures to be washed into the sea.

The EPA is expecting improved results this year, not just because of lower rain levels but because of far higher levels of sunshine.

“We’ve had no reports of sewage operational issues so far this year. We have just one alert at the moment, it’s in relation to Lough Ennel near Mullingar, but that’s an algal bloom issue not a microbiology issue,” Mr Webster says. “A bonus this year, that we didn’t have last year, is the sunshine. The UVB rays have a sterilisation effect and provide a very effective disinfectant. Countries ahead of us in water quality terms, such as Greece and Croatia, don’t have better sewerage infrastructure, just more sun.”

The expectation of a bumper year for water quality could, however, be scuppered by beach-goers. Fingal County Council collected 3,000 bags of rubbish left on beaches last weekend, and local authorities around the State are dealing with similar problems.

Beer cans
“The good weather is a real challenge for local authorities who are working hard to try to keep the beaches clean, but they are battling against the detritus of empty beer cans, bottles, barbecues and worst of all dirty nappies people are for some reason burying in the sand. A relatively small amount of faeces, a couple of dirty nappies, can lead to a failed water quality sample.”

Pressure on council resources also means that fewer places are officially designated for bathing.

The State’s 136 designated bathing places are spread over just 15 counties. The 11 with none, which are all inland, apart from Limerick, could still designate lakes for swimming, Mr Webster says.

“The EPA has been calling for local authorities to consider designating more bathing places. We have 2,500km of coastline but just 136 designated swimming places.

“Obviously it wouldn’t be possible for a local authority to take samples of every sandy cove, so they are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, but we’d like to see them designate a few more.”