The overall quality of Irish bathing waters continues to improve, with 78 per cent of bathing sites having excellent water quality, while 97 per cent meet the minimum standard, according to the latest evaluation.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attributed the improvement to better management of bathing waters sustained over many years and investments in treatment of urban wastewater.
Despite improvements in many locations, its report on last year concludes that “there are still issues which need to be addressed, to protect and further improve bathing waters. Agriculture, urban wastewater and fouling from dogs on beaches still impact the quality of bathing waters.”
In addition, heavy rainfall can also quickly impact by washing pollution into bathing waters, it warns; as a consequence, swimmers need to be vigilant and should check the www.beaches.ie website for the latest water quality information regarding their local bathing site.
“Irish Water need to improve the operation, management and maintenance of treatment plants and networks which impact on bathing waters,” the report says, adding that local authorities need to prioritise measures to increase the number of bathing waters classified as good or excellent.
The EPA said it recognises that swimming is increasingly becoming a year-round activity and the need for information that will help winter swimmers to make informed choices to protect their health.
It said the findings and outcome of the National Bathing Water Expert Group, due to be published later this year, will provide important information in this regard and help identify potential options to better protect year-round bathers.
Dr Eimear Cotter, director of the EPA's office of evidence and assessment, said bathing water quality in Ireland "is high and last year saw further improvements" compared with 2020.
“This is good news as we approach the summer when we can enjoy our local beaches and bathing areas, which are an important natural amenity for health and wellbeing.”
The key findings from last year included that 97 per cent of bathing waters (144 of 148) met or exceeded the minimum required standard, up from 96 per cent in 2020; 115 (78 per cent) bathing waters were classified as excellent, up from 111 in 2020; and two bathing waters were classified as poor, down from four in 2020.
One poor-quality location was Balbriggan Front Strand Beach in Co Dublin, which was "impacted by sewage discharges and misconnections; faeces from dogs, birds and other animals and contaminated surface streams flowing through the town".
The other was Lady's Bay, Buncrana, Co Donegal, which was impacted by the town's wastewater treatment plant, stormwater overflows and surface run-off made worse by heavy rainfall.
The EPA said local authority management plans have been put in place to address the sources of pollution at these beaches.
The report highlights improvements at Lilliput, Lough Ennell in Co Westmeath after three years at poor quality. During 2020 and last year, the bathing water quality improved significantly due to actions taken by farmers in the surrounding area, it added. A restriction on swimming has been removed.
Two bathing waters identified in 2020 were classified for the first time following the 2021 season: Carrigaholt and Quilty in Co Clare, both of which were deemed excellent. A new bathing water, Aillebrack/Silverhill Beach in Co Galway, was identified last year.
A total of 42 pollution incidents at bathing locations were reported to the EPA last year. Incidents are defined as having the potential to cause a pollution risk and, when they occur, swimming restrictions are applied at the beach until sampling shows the water quality is safe.
Local authorities put up 104 “prior warning” notices at beaches last year to warn swimmers that short-term pollution (lasting no more than a few days) may occur due to heavy rainfall.
Bathing areas are classified in one of four categories, namely “excellent”, “good”, “sufficient” or “poor”. The minimum mandatory requirement is for sufficient quality.
Any waters graded as poor require management measures to be put in place to identify and eliminate the sources of pollution. They are classified based on a statistical assessment of monitoring data over a four-year period.