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Bathing water policy - guide

16 June 2011
by eub2 -- last modified 16 June 2011

The quality of bathing water across Europe declined slightly between 2009 and 2010, but the overall quality was still high. More than nine out of 10 bathing water sites now meet the minimum requirements. Cyprus was the star performer, with 100% of its bathing water sites meeting strict guide values, followed by Croatia (97.3%), Malta (95.4%), Greece (94.2%) and Ireland (90.1%). The results are from the annual Bathing Water Report from the European Environment Agency (EEA) and the European Commission, which compare water quality in more than 21,000 coastal and inland bathing sites across the EU-27. The Commission has also adopted new signs and symbols that will be used to inform the public on bathing water classification and on bathing restrictions.


How does the European Union help to clean up Europe's beaches?

The European Commission provides the framework and the impetus for Member States to improve the quality of their bathing waters. It is the responsibility of Member States to comply with European legislation and improve the quality of their beaches and fresh water bathing sites. Every year the Commission publishes a report outlining the quality of beaches throughout the European Union based on monitoring results from the previous bathing season. The aim of the report is to make public the quality of bathing areas on the continent, giving European citizens the chance to assess for themselves where bathing may be safe.

What is the difference between guide and imperative values?

Data on bathing water is divided into three main categories: those that comply with mandatory values, those that comply with guide values and those that do not comply at all.

Compliance with mandatory values refers to the minimum water quality standards as laid out in the 1976 Bathing Water Directive. These will be fully replaced by 2015.

Compliance with the more stringent guide values means that beaches comply with the basic requirements of the Directive and also with more robust standards of water quality.

And not complying means that those bathing areas do not even meet the mandatory requirements.

What can we learn about the quality of bathing sites today from information from the previous season?

The aim of the report is not to provide real-time information on bathing areas, but rather to present water quality data for last year's bathing season compared to previous bathing seasons. This allows readers to study the trend in water quality of the bathing areas they may be considering, thereby making an informed choice based on the history of the data.

Is there current information on bathing water quality available?

The Bathing Water Report corresponds to an enormous task by all Member States to continuously monitor and report the quality of their bathing areas. This enormous volume of data and analysis is then compiled by the European Environment Agency to present a holistic view of bathing water quality throughout the European Union.

Once the new Bathing Water Directive (see below for more details) is fully applicable, Member States will be obliged to inform the public of the 'real-time' status of bathing water quality, which can be displayed at beach sites, or via the radio, the internet and television and teletext services. Such information will be mandatory by 2012.

What does it mean when a site is insufficiently sampled? Is it still safe?

Bathing areas designated as insufficiently sampled are not necessarily unsafe for bathing. It simply indicates that not enough data has been collected from those sites to test for potentially harmful microbes.

Some Member States have banned bathing in a number of bathing areas. Is this good practice to protect people's health?

In most circumstances it may be well justified to ban a bathing site, but banning a site that doesn't comply with quality standards cannot be systematically used to avoid cleaning bathing areas. The necessary remediation action needs to be taken to allow these areas to be reopened as soon as possible.

Why have some Member States reported under the current legislation and some under the new Bathing Water Directive?

The new bathing water directive (2006/7/EC) requires Member States to adjust their monitoring procedures. In some cases these required changes have yet to be implemented. Member States can choose to report under either Directive until the 2012 bathing season. After that they will have to report under the new Bathing Water Directive.

In 2010, twenty Member States (Denmark, Germany, Greece, Spain, Estonia, France, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Hungary, Malta, the Netherlands, Austria, Portugal, Slovenia, Slovakia, Finland and Sweden) and the Walloon part of Belgium monitored their bathing areas according to the new Directive's requirements.

Does this have an effect on the results?

There are transparent rules on how to compare data under the old and the new Directive in order to provide citizens with a clear picture.

Why was the Bathing Water Directive revised?

The 1976 Bathing Water Directive served us well, but scientific knowledge and best practice from 1976 are now outdated. The 2006 Directive is based on new data on the effects of bacteriological contamination and 25 years of implementing the 1976 Directive. The aim was not to move the goalposts, but to bring the legislation in line with the latest scientific information and best practice in beach management and communication.

What are the main elements of the 2006 directive?

The essential elements for the new Directive were to:

  • Update the parameters according to latest scientific knowledge;
  • Simplify the list of parameters;
  • Improve the management of bathing sites;
  • Improve information provided to the public;
  • Streamline and increase the cost effectiveness of monitoring programmes.

What are the main features of the 2006 Bathing Water Directive?

The new Directive lays down provisions for more sophisticated monitoring and classification of bathing water. It also provides for extensive public information and participation in line with the Ã…rhus Convention, as well as for comprehensive and modern management measures:

    The 2006 Directive requires Member States to draw up a management plan for each site to minimise risks to bathers based on an assessment of the sources of contamination that are likely to affect it. Users of the site should be actively involved in developing the management plan. Where bathing sites have a history of poor water quality, preventive measures should be taken to close the bathing area, for instance when certain weather conditions are predicted.

    Information on a bathing site's quality classification, the results of water quality monitoring, the site's management plan and other relevant information is to be made readily available to the public, both through displays at the site and through the media and internet.

    While the current Directive requires regular monitoring of 19 pollutants or other parameters (for example water colour), the revised Directive reduces this list to just two microbiological indicators of faecal contamination: E. Coli and Intestinal Enterococci. This simplification reflects recognition that faecal matter, for instance due to inadequate sewage treatment and pollution from animal waste, is the primary health threat to bathers.

    The classification of water quality at a bathing site will be determined on the basis of a three-year trend instead of a single year's result as is currently the case. This means that the classification will be less susceptible to bad weather or one-off incidents. Where water quality is consistently good over a three-year period, the frequency of sampling may be reduced, thereby cutting costs. It provides for the assessment of water quality on the basis of the set of water quality data compiled during the bathing seasons.

    The Directive requires "bathing profiles" to be drawn up describing the characteristics of the bathing water and identifying sources of pollution. The presence of pollution may result in needing to regularly review the status of the bathing, ban bathing if needed, and inform the public.

    To ease the monitoring burden for Member States, the new Directive reduces monitoring frequencies if the quality of bathing areas proves to be constantly "good" or "excellent".

Why new signs and symbols?

The new Bathing Water Directive requires Member States to inform the public on restrictions to bathing and on the quality of the waters with signs or symbols. For more coherence the Commission has recently adopted standardised signs and symbols to be used by all Member States.

The Commission has consulted representatives of Member States, regional and local authorities, relevant tourist and consumer organisations to develop these signs and symbols. The representatives of Member States agreed to these on 3 March 2011.

What is the relationship between the new signs and symbols and the Blue Flag campaign?

The signs and symbols adopted by the Commission and the Blue Flag will coexist. The new signs and symbols will inform the public on the quality of waters and some legal aspects of bathing water, whereas the Blue Flag is an ecological label that informs people more broadly on the sustainability of beaches and marinas. Although the European Commission provided financial support at early stages of the campaign, the Blue Flag is not a label awarded by the EU. The only link between the EU's bathing water policy and the Blue Flag is that EU criteria are used as the basis for the Blue Flag's water quality criteria. However, the Blue Flag programme uses additional criteria beyond water quality for awarding the Blue Flag to specific beaches.

Further information on the 2010 EU Bathing Water Report

New bathing water symbols

Source: European Commission