Beaches that fail to meet EU bathing water quality standards in the future "will require to be closed" to swimmers for an entire season, the Environmental Protection Agency has warned.
In its latest report on bathing water quality, the EPA found that 97 per cent of Ireland’s 135 designated bathing places comply with the EU directive – mainly due to improvements in sewage treatment systems and better water quality management.
But new EU requirements to assess water quality over a rolling four-year period mean that bathing places which fail to meet the standard “will require to be closed to bathers for the entire following season (2015) while still requiring to be monitored”.
The new targets “represent a further strengthening of measures to protect public health and amount to an almost two-fold decrease in the levels of microbiological contamination deemed to be acceptable for bathing waters”, the EPA report for 2013 said.
Of the 135 bathing places, 114 achieved “good” status, 17 were rated as “sufficient” and only four bathing waters were rated as “poor” – Clifden, Co Galway; Dugort, on Achill Island, Co Mayo; Ballyloughnane, in Galway city; and Lilliput, on Lough Ennell, Co Westmeath.
Clifden "continues to be subject to episodic pollution" by the local sewage treatment plant, but work is under way to upgrade the plant, and the EPA report said this would hopefully bring about an improvement in water quality over the coming years.
Lilliput “experienced a lengthy period of contamination late in the season” – believed to have originated from a wastewater source – while Dugort was “impacted by a rare pumping station malfunction” and Ballyloughane “experienced two pollution incidents”.
It had been anticipated that the number of waters rated “good” might have been slightly higher, but the presence of “persistent but relatively low levels of bacterial pollution” was observed in some waters – in particular some of the popular east-coast bathing areas.
The EPA identified a number of generally high-quality bathing waters subject to “sporadic pollution events” that could affect their overall classification. There were also several with the potential to be of “less than sufficient status” that would need to be monitored.
Those currently projected as having classifications of “sufficient” or “poor” have the potential to fail to meet the new minimum required standard and would therefore have to be closed, with the local authority posting “permanent bathing prohibition” notices.
The report calls on all local authorities to follow the example of Cork and Kerry county councils in forecasting possible pollution from rainfall events and says they should aim for at least 10 compliance samples per bathing place per season (June 1st to September 15th).
"It was noted that some local authorities reduced their overall frequency of sampling in 2013. These reductions may have been influenced by staffing and/or financial constraints, as much as by any consideration of historical water quality," the EPA said.
“The EU bathing water directive and the revised bathing water regulations place a significant and increased obligation on both local authorities and the EPA for the provision of information to the public in a timely manner,” its report said.
Although the overall number of bathing waters likely to be rated poor might “increase slightly” as a consequence of tighter EU compliance standards, the agency expects that Ireland should retain its place as “one of the best countries in northern Europe”.
The EPA’s bathing water information site is at: splash.epa.ie.