Beaches face loss of blue flag for years under stricter water quality rules


POPULAR IRISH beaches could lose their blue flag status for years under criteria being introduced by the international quality and cleanliness award scheme.

Under rules which will come into force next year, beaches that do not meet blue flag bathing water standards in any year must produce four years of high water quality standards before they can regain their flag.

Among the 32 criteria necessary to earn a blue flag, beaches must not exceed EU bathing water pollution limits. A new EU bathing water directive will require that beaches pass a higher test before they can qualify for the flag.

Previously, beaches were awarded or stripped of their flag for the summer bathing season based on the previous year’s results. Water quality would be then monitored by city and county councils during the bathing season, and flags could be removed if standards were not retained. The results of that monitoring would then form the basis of the application for a flag for the following year.

However, the new criteria require EU water quality results to be met for four years in a row for beaches to be eligible for a blue flag. If a beach loses its flag it must apply as if it was a new beach and show four years of results.

If a beach drops below the water quality standard in any of the four years it can still qualify, but only if water quality is above the limit for pollutants such as faecal coliforms 95 per cent of the time over the average of the four years combined.

The results which caused the loss of the flag also stay in the system for four years, so any other season of poor results in that period will drag down the average, making it harder to regain the flag.

An Taisce, which administers the programme in Ireland, said it was not possible to say at this stage which beaches would be most at risk of losing their flag under the new system.

“Local authorities have really put in the effort in recent years, and the water quality of beaches has improved. Obviously the criteria will be tougher, but this is an award for excellence,” said Annabel FitzGerald, An Taisce coastal programmes manager.

Last summer was a particularly successful year for Irish beaches, with the number achieving blue flags increasing by eight to 84, matching the record in 2006.

Flags were regained by Brittas Bay South in Co Wicklow; Traught in Kinvara, Co Clare; Ceibh An Spidéal in Galway; Ross in Killala and Old Head, both Co Mayo – all of which lost their flags in 2010.

However, Dublin’s Dollymount beach and Mullaghmore in Co Sligo did not make the grade.

Mullaghmore lost the flag in 2010, with heavy rainfall cited as the reason water quality standards were not met. It failed to regain it last year, with cattle roaming on the beach blamed for the failure.

Dollymount won a flag for the first time in 2006, but lost it in 2007. It regained the flag in 2008 and held it in 2009 and 2010, losing it again last year.

Beaches such as Dollymount, which bounce on and off the list, or those which just pass the criteria, are likely to find it most difficult to make the grade from next year onwards.

Dublin City Council said all conditions necessary to achieve the blue flag at Dollymount had been put in place by its parks and landscape services division, and water quality results in line with the regulations had been submitted.

However, it said should the flag be lost from next year onwards it would have to submit four years of bathing season results which met the criteria before it was eligible again.

The next blue flag awards will be announced in June, coinciding with the 25th anniversary year of the programme. An Taisce has been chosen to host the international anniversary celebrations.