Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Brexit: and beach water quality

Devon's beaches have been receiving accolades for quality:
Futures Forum: Connaught Gardens in Sidmouth: flying the flag
Futures Forum: Beer beach: best place to visit in Devon

However, there is still a lot to be done:
Futures Forum: Surfers Against Sewage: beach-cleaning at Sidmouth >>>
Futures Forum: Saving the oceans from plastic pollution >>> Bring in a deposit scheme on plastic bottles

And fears are developing over what sort of quality regime will be in place after Brexit:

Could Brexit affect beach water quality?

  • 5 September 2016
  • From the sectionCornwall

Could Brexit mean dirtier water at our beaches?
Environmentalists fear Brexit could see European rules on water cleanliness being undermined. But could leaving the EU result in filthy coastlines and smelly beaches?
Until recent decades, swimming in the sea off the coast of Britain could be a perilous and unhealthy activity.
"We were frequently surfing in poo," says Steve Crawford, who remembers the seas off Cornwall in the 1970s and 80s and is now a member of the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage. Back then sewage just went straight to sea. There was no treatment - it was just basically chopped and sent, not even that far out [to sea]," he adds. "We were called the 'dirty man of Europe'."
That the situation is different now is largely due to legislation by the European Union (EU), he believes. Since 1976 the UK has been subject to the EU's Bathing Water Directive (BWD), which gave member states 10 years to meet certain water quality standards in bathing areas.
Samuel Lowe, a campaigner at Friends of the Earth, says it was primarily pressure from the EU that led to the clean up. He is now concerned about the future of the UK's beaches following Brexit. "The history of the Bathing Water Directive and how we've treated our beaches suggests that standards will not be upheld to the degree that they are now," he says.

Today raw sewage is only discharged into the sea to prevent water treatment systems flooding after heavy rainfall

Issued by the European Commission in 1976 the BWD sought "to protect the environment and public health" by reducing the pollution of bathing water. However, the directive did not change the country's bathing waters overnight.
"The evidence was that successive governments from both political persuasions were dragging their feet, it wasn't really a priority," Mr Lowe says.
In 1993 the UK was taken to court by the European Commission when it failed to meet bathing water standards in nine areas around Lancashire's Fylde coast. These improvements had been implemented by 2001, although there were more threats of fines and further court cases before then.
Even as recently as 2015, 31 bathing water sites in the UK were classed as "poor" in the European Environment Agency's annual reportHowever, by common consent, the situation has massively improved since the 1990s. By 2015, 97% of England's bathing waters had passed the commission's minimum standards, compared to only 27% in 1990.

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The Bathing Water Directive

  • The first Bathing Water Directive was introduced by the European Commission in 1976
  • Its objective was to reduce pollution of bathing water across Europe in order to protect the environment and public health
  • Member states of the European Economic Community - the predecessor of the European Union - were given 10 years to meet minimum water quality standards in bathing areas based on bacteria levels in the water
  • In 2006 the directive was revised
  • It included more stringent minimum standards and said the public must be informed about bathing water quality in different areas
  • Bathing areas are classified as excellent, good, sufficient or poor - depending on the concentration of E. coli and intestinal enterococci in the water
  • By the end of 2015 all member states had to ensure their bathing waters met the criteria for the "sufficient" classification
Source: European Commission/Environment Agency

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Stephen Fletcher, associate professor in marine policy at Plymouth University, agrees that beach water quality has "improved considerably" in the past 10 or 15 years. "One argument is that the directives - not just this one but the other water quality directives - have prompted a huge investment in water quality treatment," Prof Fletcher says.

According to the government, the water industry has invested billions of pounds since the 1990s on bathing water improvement measures. The Environment Agency, which lists sewage and agriculture as the main pollutants of bathing water, says it has also worked with farmers to tackle problems such as run-off from manure infiltrating watercourses.
But with Brexit on the horizon, many believe it is crucial pressure is maintained to "keep improving water quality". For instance, Mr Crawford says raw sewage is still discharged into the sea when heavy rainfall overwhelms water treatment systems. When this happened in Scarborough last month, surfers complained of feeling ill while there was a distinctive smell at the beach, he says. "The big problem is the water companies are businesses," he says. "Obviously infrastructure improvements cost a hell of a lot of money... so they need pressure on them to continue to make those improvements."
Until now, Friends of the Earth say pressure to maintain standards has largely come from the EU. Although Mr Lowe does not believe Brexit will prompt a return to raw sewage on the UK's beaches, he is concerned about the loss of the EU as an independent regulator.
"Without that accountability mechanism there's a big worry that local authorities, who are low on budget... it just won't be a priority and standards will start to slip," he says. "This year we've already seen the government declassify beaches considered poor, so as to wash their hands of the problem," he adds, referring to Church Cliff in Lyme Regis, Dorset, and Staithes, in north Yorkshire.
The government declassified those beaches as bathing water areas before the spring of 2016. This means monitoring for bathing water quality has stopped there and the government is not obliged to inform the public about the water quality.
However, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) says it is "committed to creating a cleaner, healthier natural environment for future generations to be proud of - delivering the best possible outcome for the British people. That is why protecting our environment will form an important part of our EU exit negotiations," a spokesman says.
So will Brexit have a major impact on the cleanliness of the UK's beaches?
Prof Fletcher believes it is unlikely. For one, he says, there are existing independent bodies, such as the Marine Management Organisation, which already regulate marine activities and could be repurposed to regulate bathing water. And he points out that the BWD has already been translated into UK law.
"If we pull out of the EU it doesn't really matter; in a sense the UK Bathing Water Regulations (2013) still exist and it's not until they're repealed that there's likely to be a change in the way the beachscape is managed," he says. While he thinks this is "not massively likely", he admits "it's impossible to predict" when it comes to Brexit.

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