THE SUSTAINABLE WATER Network (SWAN), a group of 25 environmental NGOs, have called on the government to develop a “much stronger” Water Action Plan as they claim current measures have missed the mark.
As thousands of swimmers around the country prepare for festive dips in the coming days, the group has called for increased testing of bathing water quality.
Most of the bathers taking the plunge around the country will not be able to find information on the quality of the water they are swimming in, the NGOs have noted.
While local authorities are legally required to frequently test the quality of monitored bathing waters from June to September, few continue doing so during off-season months.
The bathing water quality at some of Ireland’s most popular beaches was rated ‘excellent’ in the most recent tests. However, that water has remained largely untested since the bathing period ended in September of this year – so that rating is, in many cases, months old.
Sinéad O’Brien, a coordinator for SWAN, said pollution still gets into bathing spots outside of the bathing season and “will continue to do so until we address the issue at source”.
O’Brien added that the government’s Water Action Plan provides “an ideal opportunity to make all our rivers, lakes and seas healthy”.
“However, the draft plan completely lacked the ambition needed and the strong measures required to do this,” she said.
She added: “If people are looking for the best action to make swimming in Ireland pollution free in the long term, they can join our call for a much stronger final Water Action Plan from government in the new year.”
The Water Action Plan aims to protect ecosystems around water including keeping water in Ireland healthy, secure and clean through maintaining the quality and supply of water within habitats.
Wim Meijer, a senior professor at UCD’s School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science, told The Journal that he sees increased water quality testing as the next step in maintaining Ireland’s water quality.
“That’s certainly where it is heading. Of course, it’s a decision for the local authorities,” he said.
“It’s within everyone’s interest that water is tested frequently. It is, of course, limited by the resources available – which come with a price tag,” he added.
Restrictions hit over half of bathing waters
While the bathing water quality reports over this summer did reflect a high standard, data analysed by Noteworthy in October found that swimming restrictions hit over half of all Irish bathing waters during the same period.
Restrictions ranged from swimming bans, when water is polluted, to warnings, when the pollution risk is high but the water hasn’t yet been tested.
A wave of bans have hit swimming spots across the country in recent years due to water quality issues linked to pollution, algae and our changing climate.
Local authorities are required to test the quality of their water during the annual bathing season, from 1 June to 15 September. The results of these tests are posted publicly to the EPA’s beaches database.
The EPA said that while local authorities must test their waters during this time, some local authorities also voluntarily monitor outside of the summer bathing season.
Fingal County Council told The Journal that they only test their waters within the bathing season. (The other Dublin local authority, South Dublin County Council, does not have a coastline).
There’s less frequent out-of-season testing of water at beaches such as Ballybunion in Co Kerry and Bundoran in Co Donegal.
Elsewhere, Galway County Council, Sligo County Council and Cork County Council are among the authorities that do not test their waters outside of the bathing season.
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said water at six locations was checked on 12 December, meaning they will not be re-checked until 26 December.
Only one, Shelly Banks, near the South Bull Wall, was found to have poor water quality while the remaining bathing water sites were found to have a good or excellent quality of water.
Untested waters at popular swim spots
The water quality at some of the most popular swimming spots in Ireland hasn’t been tested for months. Ballybunion North and South beaches, overseen by Kerry County Council, were last tested on 4 September – back then they both had had “excellent” water quality.
The water at Bundoran Beach, under Donegal County Council, has not been tested since 6 September, according to data from beaches.ie. While it had excellent water quality, this test was over three months ago.
A spokesperson for Donegal County Council said: “The Council does not carry out any sampling and testing of bathing water outside of the official bathing season, apart from a round of pre-season samples at the end of May each year.”
The water at Salthill Beach, under the control of Galway City Council, has not been tested since 11 September, according to data from the same database. It was found to have excellent water quality at the time.
However, the quality of the water can change drastically over time. Within the same period, water at Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown’s Forty Foot tested as ‘poor’ on 11 September.
According to data from the council’s testing on 6 December, the Forty Foot now has ‘excellent’ water quality.
“The bacterial pollution health risk that leads to the issuing of swim restrictions mainly comes from sewage and agriculture,” O’Brien said.
She added that rainfall increases the amount of this type of pollution that gets into our water – and the EPA advises not to swim 48 hours after heavy rain.
Dr Meijer said that the testing of water is “always retrospective” and that the public should heed the warnings from the EPA when there is increased rainfall or visible pollution in the water.
It is understood, however, that most polluted waters can be washed out of the shoreline after the first two tides, given there is no rainfall between them. All sources of bathing water differ, Meijer said, and it’s best to follow the guidance from the EPA or local authorities before deciding to swim again.
Despite this, in the EPA’s 2022 Bathing Water Quality in Ireland report, the agency noted that Ireland’s bathing water quality has continued to improve.
For those who do intend to head out for a splash this Christmas, Water Safety Ireland advises swimmers to be prepared and wear the proper equipment, such as a hat, wetsuit and booties.
The group also advises swimmers to get in slowly to avoid cold shock and get out before getting too cold, before immediately warming up as soon as possible after you’ve completed your Christmas dip.
This article was developed with the Noteworthy team as a follow-up to their RED FLAG investigation on bathing water restrictions. Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform of The Journal. Find out more here >>