Northern Ireland’s bathing waters continued to perform well in 2023 despite it being the wettest July in Northern Ireland since records began.
Twenty-five of the 26 identified bathing waters in Northern Ireland have met the required standards for water quality when measured against the standards for faecal indicator organisms.
Eighteen bathing waters are classified as ‘Excellent’, a prerequisite for the coveted Blue Flag Award and the highest water quality standard, six have met the ‘Good’ standard, and one the ‘Sufficient’ standard. Ballyholme bathing water, unfortunately, has failed to meet the minimum standards for a second year in a row.
This year the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), which manages the bathing water programme, also undertook sampling at a number of ‘Candidate’ bathing waters which had been recommended as bathing sites by the Bathing Water Review conducted by the Department in 2022/2023. This included Northern Ireland’s first Inland Bathing Water at Rea’s Wood, Antrim.
The seven ‘Candidate’ bathing waters were also measured against the standards for faecal indicator organisms with one classified as ‘Excellent’, two as ‘Good’ and the remaining four failing to meet the minimum standards.
A DAERA spokesperson said: “Even though the weather this summer was more unsettled than previous years, it is very encouraging to see so many of Northern Ireland’s bathing waters maintaining high standards for water quality. Although there is some reduction in water quality, this is to be expected given the weather conditions, with the wettest July on record.
“The results from the new candidate sites are, however, disappointing. Sample numbers are low at the new sites, with only one season’s data, which has the potential to skew results. However, it also shows the vulnerability of all our waters to pollution during heavy rainfall events.”
The spokesperson added: “Unfortunately, this season was also dominated by the blue-green algae events in Lough Neagh, which impacted the new Rea’s Wood site in Antrim and some of our north coast bathing waters. This is the first time that we have seen blue-green algae blooms affecting the quality of some bathing waters and we know this created significant impacts and disappointment for those who love to use our waters.
“Our bathing waters are a huge asset to Northern Ireland, valued by locals and visitors alike. We take our responsibilities for water quality seriously. While there are no quick fixes to the situation that occurred this summer on Lough Neagh, we are working closely with scientific and other experts on proposals that can deliver improvement for the future. In the meantime, we will not hesitate to take action where there is evidence that the laws in place to protect our bathing waters are not being adhered to."
The 2023 bathing season was supported by a pilot bathing water quality prediction app, ‘Swim NI’, which provided daily forecasts of bathing water quality at six beaches, enabling bathers to make an informed choice.
The project is a collaboration between scientists at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute and communications partner Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, and is a continuation of work developed under the EU Interreg VA SWIM project.
This app worked well for four of the beaches, but the modelling supporting the forecasts needs further development for two of the beaches and will be refined for next year. DAERA will support ongoing efforts to provide wider prediction tools for bathing water quality.”
The 2023 results for the 26 Identified Bathing Waters are:
Murlough (Co Down)
Portballintrae Salmon Rock
Portrush Curran (East Strand)
Portrush Mill (West Strand)
The 2023 results for the 7 Candidate Bathing Waters are:
Notes to editors:
- Northern Ireland has 26 identified bathing waters which must meet stringent water quality standards set in The Quality of Bathing Water Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008. The bathing season runs from 01 June until 15 September annually.
- In 2023, there were 20 samples collected at each identified bathing water for faecal indicator organisms during the season. Bathing water classifications are based on analysis of these sample results. In addition to monitoring faecal indicator organism levels via water sampling, visual assessments for possible pollution incidents, including presence of waste, proliferation of macroalgae (seaweed) and algal scums and blooms (including blue-green algae) are also made during each sampling run (20 times per site over the season). Where there are concerns of risks to bathers’ health from a visual assessment of, for example, blue-green algae, further assessment is made by taking water samples to establish levels in relation to agreed health guidelines for safe bathing. In the case of blue-green algae, the World Health Organisation (WHO)’s guidelines are applied.
- Comparing the 2023 with the 2022 classifications, the overall classification for 23 of the identified bathing waters remains unchanged. A deterioration in classification is observed at three locations; Ballywalter, Crawfordsburn and Millisle bathing waters, which dropped from ‘Excellent’ to ‘Good’.
- In 2023, 20 samples were also collected and analysed for faecal indicator organisms for seven ‘Candidate’ bathing waters, including Northern Ireland’s first Inland Bathing Water, which had been proposed as the result of the Bathing Water Review held in 2022/2023. This first classification is based on a 20 sample dataset over one year only. Typically, classification is based on four years of results and up to 80 samples. The Department plans to progress to formally identify the seven candidate sites in early 2024 in consultation with each bathing water operator.
- Bathing Waters are classified as Excellent, Good, Sufficient or Poor (see above). This classification is based on a statistical assessment of Faecal Indicator Bacteria results from the last four years i.e. E. Coli. and Intestinal Enterococci.
- DAERA continues to work with NI Water to improve the water environment through targeted investment in improved sewage treatment and with the agriculture sector to better regulate and manage nutrients. Given the ‘Poor’ classification recorded in Ballyholme bathing water in 2023, the Department will continue to work with these partner organisations to direct extra resources towards identifying the source/s of pollution and finding solutions to reduce the impact from these sources.
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