Diffuse pollution from agriculture was the cause of 37% of bathing water pollution incidents last year.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has today (Wednesday, May 12) published its annual report for 2020 on bathing water in Ireland, which sets out the quality of bathing water at beaches.

Overall, bathing water quality improved across the country in 2020.

However, the report highlights that water quality can change quickly in the short term, especially during rainfall events which can wash pollution into our bathing waters.

The key findings of the Bathing Water in Ireland report for 2020 include:

  • 96% of bathing waters (142 of 148) met or exceeded the minimum required standard, up from 95% in 2019;
  • 111 (75%) bathing waters were classified as ‘excellent’, up from 107 in 2019;
  • Four bathing waters were classified as ‘poor’, down from five in 2019;
  • 57 pollution incidents were reported to the EPA during 2020;
  • The most common cause of pollution incidents in 2020 was discharges from urban wastewater systems.

Bathing water pollution incidents

During the bathing water season, swimming restrictions may be put in place at a beach if a pollution incident occurs or a water sampling indicates there could be a risk to human health.

As defined by the EPA, a pollution incident is an incident “that has the potential to cause the bathing water quality to deteriorate at the beach”.

In 2020, 57 bathing water pollution incidents were reported to the agency, compared to 50 in 2019.

A precautionary approach is taken when reporting incidents, meaning that not all incidents reported result in a deterioration in the bathing water quality. According to the EPA, this approach is taken to protect bathers’ health.

Local authorities investigate and report the likely causes of these pollution incidents to the EPA. In 2020, they were caused by:

  • Urban wastewater (47%);
  • Diffuse pollution from agriculture (37%);
  • Water run-off from urban areas during rainfall and misconnections, where waste pipes from households have been incorrectly connected to surface drains (12%);
  • Septic tanks (4%).

The EPA also notes that rainfall and sunshine can affect bathing water quality.

“Heavy rainfall can increase the number of bacteria and other harmful organisms which get washed from our countryside and towns, through rivers and sewer systems, to our beaches and lakes,” the report states.

“Sunshine can improve bathing water quality by killing bacteria and other harmful organisms. The summer of 2020 featured a lot of unsettled weather. The monthly total sunshine hours were below average throughout the country.

“Most places also experienced above average rainfall and below average air temperatures.

“Half of all bathing water incidents were reported during the month of August when two named storms, Storm Ellen and Storm Francis, brought widespread gales and heavy rainfall, with flooding in some areas.”

Recommendation for year-round water monitoring

Throughout this summer, water quality information and details of any incidents affecting bathing waters will be displayed online.

The EPA has made a recommendation for year-round water monitoring, which has been deemed “a necessary step” by Green Party Councillor Donna Cooney, a campaigner for clean bathing water.

With many people now swimming outside the summer bathing season, it is being called for local authorities to increase their monitoring capacity and to provide this information to the public.

The national Bathing Water Expert Group is due to meet this week, with the EPA, An Taisce and CoastWatch likely to make recommendations to Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien to extend the bathing water season testing.