Water quality


An environmental issue

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Water quality


The Water Quality issue.

Water quality at UK beaches is still one of the major battlegrounds for Surfers Against Sewage. Sewage contamination from combined sewer overflows (CSO’s) and diffuse pollution remain two of the most serious water quality threats at popular bathing waters, surf spots and recreational coastal sites right around the UK.

The overreliance on CSOs by water companies is the cause of thousands of short term-pollution incidents at beaches every year. There are approximately 31,000 CSOs around the UK, many of which are completely unregulated. The CSO is a kind of emergency outlet for the sewerage system, discharging untreated human sewage and wastewater into rivers and the sea when the system is close to bursting. However, it appears that many CSOs are being used too frequently as a means of regular sewage disposal, not just in the extreme weather conditions they are designed for. This puts untreated human sewage effluent directly into some of our most prized beaches and surf spots, with all the associated health and environmental risks that it carries with it.

Water quality can also be reduced by diffuse pollution, which is the term given to pollution from multiple, often unidentified sources. When these sources combine, they can have a significant impact on water quality. Examples include road, urban and agricultural run-off and leakage from septic tanks. Contaminants can include pathogens, hydrocarbons, chemicals, heavy metals and organic substances. Even when individual inputs are quite small, collectively they can significantly reduce water quality.

The Environment Agency is responsible for testing bathing water quality at approximately 500 designated UK bathing waters 20 times (weekly) during the bathing season from may 15th to September 30th. Samples are analysed against the standards set in the European Bathing Water Directive. Given the range of pollution sources that can impact water quality, from farming to urban run-off, combined sewer overflows to sewerage misconnections, the Environment Agency works with a range of stakeholders including SAS to help maintain and improve standards. No water quality testing occurs outside of the bathing season.

Water Quality Sewage related facts

Environmental and waveriders protection issues

Contaminated bathing water

Contaminated bathing water

Bathing waters contaminated by sewage and diffuse pollution can harm us, causing illnesses that range from the annoying to life threatening. Did you know that if you regularly surf in sewage-polluted seawater that you’re advised to discuss hepatitis A vaccinations with your GP?

Sewage related illnesses

Sewage related illnesses

The most common complaints amongst surfers and other recreational water users, although painful, are relatively harmless and range from ear, nose and throat infections to stomach complaints such as diarrhoea and vomiting. Unfortunately there are other more serious illnesses that can be contracted from sewage-contaminated water including hepatitis A, meningitis and septicaemia. These are all capable of keeping you out of the water for days, weeks or months at a time.

Untreated sewage

Untreated sewage

Unless sewage is fully treated to a tertiary level, any effluent discharged into bathing waters will contain high levels of human-derived bacteria and viruses. Scientific studies have highlighted that those exposed to sewage-polluted water when surfing or practicing similar activities are three times as likely to contract a related illness other water users due to immersion in and ingestion of water.


In 2015, the current European Bathing Water Directive will be superseded by the revised Bathing Water Directive (2006/7/EC), which as a result of SAS’s campaigning in Europe, will set more stringent water quality standards and places a greater emphasis on beach management and the provision of public information. The updated Bathing Water Directive will measure water quality using two new parameters, Escherichia coli (E.coli) and intestinal enterococci, which scientific evidence has shown to be better indicators of health risks to bathers that those used in the current Directive - faecal coliforms and total coliforms.

Under the revised Bathing Water Directive, Bathing Waters will also be classified differently from 2015, with standards including Excellent, Good, Sufficient and Poor. The UK is aspiring to achieve at least sufficient for all Bathing waters by 2015. These new standards are based on 4 years’ water quality data rather than the single season measurement currently used. Water quality is monitored and analysed weekly by the Environment Agency throughout the bathing season (May – September).

Unfortunately, the new revised Directive still fails to recognise ‘recreational water users’ (surfers, windsurfers, kayakers etc) as ‘bathers’, thus failing to properly protect them. In addition, the Directive only relates to Designated Bathing Waters, but many recreational water sports take place outside of these zones and therefore have no water quality safeguards. The Directive also only accounts for water quality sampling in the bathing season, from May – September. Outside of this period no water quality sampling or reporting to the public occurs, effectively discriminating against surfers and other recreational water sports enthusiasts who use the water year-round. For some watersports, such as surfing, conditions are often actually better outside of the bathing season when modern wetsuit technology allows people to enjoy the water for many hours even on the coldest days.

Surfers Against Sewage continues to campaign for a legal recognition of ‘recreational water users’ as the group most at risk of suffering illness from exposure to sewage polluted water. We are also seeking to define areas of popular recreational water use that sit outside the designated bathing waters list, yet should be benefiting from clean and safe water.

In addition to this, SAS is currently calling for the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to extend the Bathing Season to better safeguard water quality and those that use the sea. SAS is also calling for greater year-round water quality safeguards through its Protect Our Waves petition, urging more action to limit the number of CSO spills to a maximum of 3 per Bathing Season or 9 annually for all recreational water sports zones.

The European Water Framework Directive and the Marine Strategy Framework Directive are other pieces of legislation that SAS focuses on to help drive water quality improvements. These are more holistic pieces of legislation covering the whole water catchment and are essential in helping tackle diffuse pollution and the cleanliness of water in and around river basins.