A season under high surveillance


The 2020 bathing season is coming to an end, and because of the ongoing health crisis, it has been widely monitored with its share of ingenuity to ensure safe access to beaches. But in addition to COVID-19, we know that water contamination can be diverse and frequent. Bacteriological, chemical, plastic... bathing areas are subject to numerous cases of pollution causing closures every summer in Europe, unfortunately for swimmers and other water sports enthusiasts, both tourists and locals. These closures have an impact on the local economy. Indeed, beaches are closed to swimming under the pretext of protecting users from pollution. However, this could be avoided: technical means and political decisions must be taken to address this problem at the source.   

Many cases of pollution

Summer 2020 has been like no other, that's for sure. However, in terms of water quality, it is not possible to note major changes: many European bathing areas have still been victim to forced closures due to cases of pollution.   

Thanks to the compulsory monitoring during summer surveillance periods, the most well-known form of pollution is bacteriological. This year, several orders were issued banning water sports and swimming because of a proliferation of cyanobacteria, for example on the Lac de Léon site in the Landes or on the Vieilles-Forges lake in the Ardennes (France). Some of these microscopic algae can be dangerous for humans. Although naturally present in the aquatic environment for billions of years, today they are proliferating in a problematic way due to human activity and climate change effects

Bacteriological pollution and the ensuing bans on swimming are also often the result of heavy rainfall, storms, and malfunctioning wastewater systems. This summer, for example, the case was observed in Brittany, France, where bathing sites had to be closed after a broken pipe in a residential area caused several liters of untreated wastewater to be discharged into the ocean.  

Cases of this nature are being observed all over Europe: the famous beach of Nazaré in Portugal was also closed this summer because of bacteriological pollution, as were the bathing areas in the municipality of San Bartolomeo al Mare and the Beach of the Americans in Ragusa, Italy.  

Currently, the EU Bathing Water Directive (2006/7/EC) focuses on a bacteriological assessment to determine safe water quality, but to protect the health of Ocean users, additional parameters must be taken into consideration. To date, no chemical monitoring has been set up at the level of bathing areas to inform and guarantee safe access for users. This is alarming because without adequate monitoring tools, there is no way of identifying early stages of chemical pollution. By the time authorities are made aware of the pollution it can be quite severe and can pose a serious health risk to both humans and nature. This is the example in the Golf of Fos when this summer a leak of ferric chloride solution at the Kem One site in Lavéra, Martigues caused the closure of several bathing sites in the area. To hold the company responsible, Surfrider Europe has filed a legal complaint for environmental damages and expects strong, actionable commitments from the local authorities.  

The dangers of chemical pollution are not exclusively due to industrial incidents, however. It can also be the consequence of the pharmaceutical medicines the pass through our bodies, enter the sewage systems and empty out into the Ocean. This type of pollution, which is still little known, is also not included in the criteria for monitoring water quality in Europe. To understand the different forms of existing chemical pollution, we invite you to rediscover this dedicated article.  

An encouraging but still insufficient annual report  

Last June, the European Environment Agency's annual report on bathing water quality was published. It shows an improvement, due in particular to the better management imposed by the 2006 revision of the Directive on Bathing Water Quality. Thus, 84.6% of the 22,295 European sites included in this report are judged to be of "excellent quality".   

On the other hand, 294 sites are "of insufficient quality" and therefore had to be closed during the 2020 summer season, as well as subjected to a specific system requiring the identification of pollution sources, actionable measures to reduce this pollution and the provision of information to users. However, year after year, some of these sites continue to be judged insufficient quality: after five years, a permanent ban is recommended, which was the case for 55 bathing areas in Europe in 2019, including 36 in Italy.   

Despite these advances and a water generally considered "very clean" in Europe, Surfrider warns of the inadequacy of these measures and the risk that is still very present for the environment and human health.   

Revision of the water quality directive: coming soon     

Much less visible than plastic pollution, chemical pollution of the ocean is an increasingly important reality that should not be neglected. The revision of the Bathing Water Directive in 2006 has already led to a clear improvement in the monitoring of European water quality, notably through improved communication and information. The introduction of vulnerability profiles or "beach profiles" has also been beneficial, as work to identify and characterize sites had to be carried out in all official bathing areas. However, efforts still need to be made; this is why Surfrider Europe, as a member of the European Commission's expert group on bathing water, wants to have new measures adopted as part of the revision of this directive which should take place between 2020 and 2021.   

The association is not alone in the fight for clean water. “Eau & Rivières de Bretagne” has filed a formal compliant with the French state claiming that cases of bacteriological pollution are too often categorized as "short-term pollution" due to rain. Thus, no actions are taken to improve the condition of these sites and resolve the problem at its source.   

Concerning the next Directive revision, Surfrider is demanding an extension of measurable parameters to include chemical pollution and an expanded monitoring period. Indeed, today, in most areas, monitoring is only mandatory during July and August. For the majority of the year, ocean users are left without access to important information on bathing water quality which, making them extremely vulnerable to pollution and health risks.  

Surfrider Europe fights every day for better monitoring of bathing water quality in order to protect the Ocean and those who love and cherish it. Always very close to the reality on the ground, the association has conducted a survey over the last few months to collect data from swimmers and water sports enthusiasts, in order to obtain evidence of the need to do more for water quality. Results of this survey are coming soon. 

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