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Bathing Water Quality Information

People visiting a beach use the water for a variety of activities and want to do this in the knowledge that it will not have a negative impact on their health.

In England the Bathing Water Directive is administered by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and is implemented by the Environment Agency (EA). On designated bathing beaches, the EA are guided by the Bathing Waters Directive, which has been revised, with higher water quality standards to protect beach users throughout the bathing season. Not all beaches are designated as bathing waters, in Cornwall there are 89 designated beaches at present.  

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The bathing water season extends from mid-May to the end of September, throughout this period the EA sample bathing water quality on a regular basis. This process helps classify the quality of the bathing water associated with the beach.  The responsibility for displaying public information at a bathing water lies with its 'bathing controller' which on many of the beaches in Cornwall is Cornwall Council.  More information on bathing water classification and bacterial standards can be found via the Environment Agency website. 

A number of designated bathing waters in Cornwall receive bathing water notifications, which identify when an event has occurred which could potentially impact on bathing water quality.  When a notification is issued, Cornwall Council works with South West Water (SWW), the EA and local bathing water champions to put notifications on the beach.  The purpose of this is to give beach users an informed choice about when and where to bathe.  As well as being available online, notifications are normally displayed on the main beach information sign at RNLI lifeguarded beaches.

There are three different types of notification.

Combined Sewer Overflow

SWW have developed a system called BeachLive, which notifies the Council and informs the public should a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) discharge. This gives an indication that sewage related waste could be entering onto the bathing water. CSO’s generally discharge during heavy rainfall events and a notification is triggered once a CSO discharges. Please note that not all beaches are affected by CSO's and some sites that are do not have a notification system.

Pollution Risk Forecasting

The EA run a Pollution Risk Forecasting (PRF) system that considers a number of variables, such as rainfall, tidal range and windspeed and wind direction. Based on these variables they provide notifications when there is a high probability of them contributing towards lower bathing water quality. As the name suggests this is a forecasting system and an update is provided daily on the EA website throughout the bathing water season. Please note that the EA do not provide PRF notifications on all designated bathing waters.  You can view bathing water quality across Cornwall online via the Environment Agency website.

Abnormal Pollution Events

The final type of notification is associated with Abnormal Pollution Events known as Abnormal Situations.  Abnormal Situations are declared by the Environment Agency and are unusual, infrequent pollution events that are impacting on a designated bathing water beach. During an Abnormal Situation, water quality monitoring is suspended until the incident is over. 

With support from the Environment Agency and water companies, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) have developed a real time bating water quality alert service called the Safer Seas Service. The Safer Seas Service is an app that  provides real time information on pollution notifications that could impact on bathing water quality.

The Safer Seas Service app works alongside the EA's water quality website to help give beach users more choice on how they access information about bathing water quality. 

Should you wish to report a pollution incident at a beach, stream or river, then it should be reported to the Environment Agency, via their incident hotline on 0800 80 70 60.  If you can take a photo of the incident, this may prove helpful to identify the cause and type of pollution.  The EA enforce the environmental legislation controlling pollution incidents and co-ordinate the response.

Sometimes there is confusion between algae and sewage on the coastline.  In early summer algael blooms in the sea can form a thick foam, which can be brown in colour and smell unpleasent.  During rough conditions these blooms, which often remain offshore in the marine environment, can wash onto the shoreline.  Storm water overflows, which are associated with sewage waste, are typically grey in colour but can have a similar odour, often smelling like rotten eggs.  The main difference is that sewage waste is unlikely to form a foam, like you would see with an algael bloom.  The Environment Agency and South West Water have produced an information leaflet called Is It Algae or Sewage? where further information can be found on the subject.