SUN is out, and with it the rush to the beaches, people having a splash in the water, and not just those like myself who are part of the rising trend towards what’s called wild swimming.

To mark the beginning of bathing waters monitoring season, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency released a report which trumpeted that 94 percent of our designated bathing waters “achieved strict environmental standards”. The same week, news articles revealed that in the European Environment Agency rankings of bathing waters, the UK came bottom.

So, what’s the truth? The answer of course is murky. Some of our beaches – Ayr South Beach, Kinghorn in Fife – are indeed regularly contaminated with fecal bacteria, which mostly comes from outflows of untreated sewage or wash off from farms. But the reason, it turned out that the UK, was so low in ranking, was that both England and Scotland, had, due to Covid, started bathing waters season late last year and submitted insufficient data.

That doesn’t mean that we should rest easy. It’s worth noting that SEPA’s current ratings are based on data from 2019, and if we compare with data from England and Wales for that year, we find Scotland has the highest proportion of poorly-rated bathing waters. 6 percent of our beaches are rated poor, compared with 2 percent in England and none in Wales.

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Meanwhile, Ayr south beach is on the brink of being delisted – four years of “poor” and you’re out – and Fisherrow Sands at Musselburgh has already been bumped off the list. And even those not listed as poor occasionally exceed safety limits. An FOI by the Ferret found last year that Black Sands at Aberdour had once last year had levels of E Coli 14 times the safety limit and Loch Lomond’s Luss Bay once measured six times the limit. Most wild swimmers who use beaches impacted by untreated sewage overflow, even those like my local Portobello, rated as “sufficient”, will say they don’t go in after heavy rainfall, for fear of paddling into what a friend calls “shitspill”, including baby wipes and sanitary towels.

At the same time there is a movement amongst environmentalists and swimmers to get more waters designated, including rivers. I am part of a campaign to have Wardie Bay designated. Forth Rivers Trust has applied to SEPA for bathing water status for part of the River Almond.

Many of us would like to see more monitoring not just for human health reasons but because it provides transparency around how straining and inadequate sewage systems may by impacting our aquatic environments; data with which to push for improvements.

I feel concern for those who might flock to a poorly-rated beach following rain, but actually that’s not my only worry. It’s what’s happening to what lives in these waters – and upstream from them. Where there’s a dirty beach, there’s usually a dirty river feeding in.

Recently I met Alison Baker from The Forth Rivers Trust, who took me to the stretch on the Almond that is the subject of the bathing waters status bid – a perfect dipping and paddling spot, which would have been used as such in the past, but happens to be not far downstream from a sewage treatment centre. Near the untreated sewage outflow, at the waters’ edge baby wipes clung to overhanging twigs.

Through an FOI she had found that for 2020, SEPA's data was incomplete, with some periods unmonitored, but still at least 617 untreated sewage dumping events occurred and a total of 303,324 m3 of untreated sewage entered the water.

What struck me, as we walked past outflows for both untreated and treated sewage was how much is not monitored in bathing waters, since it's all about immediate risk to human health – the nitrates and phosphates which can cause eutrophication, the pharmaceutical substances, the microplastics. Bathing waters are also a tiny fraction of our coasts and waters. But also, what is measured, in our biggest pollutant monitoring scheme, is a tiny fraction of the contaminants.

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