Quality of bathing waters

Briefing Published 29 Nov 2018 Last modified 07 Dec 2018
8 min read
Quality of bathing waters

Indicator

EU indicator past trend

Selected objective to be met by 2020

Indicative outlook for the EU meeting the selected objective by 2020

Bathing water quality

Green triangle: improving trend

Increase the number of bathing waters classified as 'excellent' or 'good' under the Bathing Water Directive

Green circle: it is likely that the objective will be met by 2020

The share of bathing waters that meet excellent and good quality standards is likely to increase further due to implementation of the Bathing Water Directive, in particular the measures on poor quality waters.

For further information on the scoreboard methodology please see Box I.3 in the EEA Environmental indicator report 2018


The Seventh Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) includes an objective that, by 2020, citizens throughout the EU will benefit from high standards of bathing water. The Bathing Water Directive requires that Member States take realistic and proportionate measures to increase the number of bathing waters classified as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. Minimum water quality standards were met by 96.0 % of all EU bathing waters identified for the 2017 bathing season. Overall, bathing water quality is improving over time due to investment in the sewerage system, better waste water treatment and the reduction of pollution from farms.

Setting the scene

The 7th EAP (EU, 2013) includes an objective that, by 2020, citizens throughout the EU will benefit from high standards of bathing water. Bathing water quality is a cause for concern for public health, as swimming at beaches or bathing lakes contaminated with faecal bacteria can result in illness. The major sources of pollution responsible for faecal bacteria are sewage and water draining from farms and farmland. Such pollution increases during heavy rain and floods, when pollution is washed into rivers and seas, and as a result of overflowing sewerage networks. In addition to good water quality for bathing, clean unpolluted water is required for ecosystems and to support economic activities such as tourism.

Policy targets and progress

The Bathing Water Directive (EU, 2006) has the aim of increasing the number of bathing waters classified as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’. It also includes a shorter term goal that, by 2015, all waters should have been of at least ‘sufficient’ quality. In the context of this briefing, and with the aim of linking the objective of the 7th EAP regarding bathing water to the Bathing Water Directive, bathing waters that meet the minimum water quality standards of the Directive (meaning that they were of at least ‘sufficient’ bathing water quality) are considered to have achieved the high standards called for under the 7th EAP.

Figure 1 provides an overview for the period 2011-2017 of the classification of EU bathing waters into the excellent, sufficient (including good) and poor categories, as well as those bathing waters that could not be classified.

Figure 1. Overall bathing water quality in the EU

Note:
1. The category ‘quality classification not possible’ includes waters for which there were not enough samples, new bathing waters, bathing waters with changes or bathing waters that had been closed.
2. The full separation of the good and sufficient water quality classes has been possible only for the last three reporting years (2015-2017), which is why the time series shows the good and sufficient classes together.

The share of bathing waters in the EU that meet minimum water quality standards (excellent, good and sufficient standards) increased from 92.6 % in 2011 to 96.0 % in 2017 with the share of bathing waters in the EU meeting excellent standards having increased at a higher rate (from 78.1 % in 2011 to 85.0 % in 2017).

The proportion of bathing waters in the EU whose status is poor remained relatively constant (between 1.4 % and 2.0 %) during the 2011-2017 period with the lowest value observed both in 2016 and 2017 (EEA, 2018).

Overall, bathing water quality is improving over time. It is encouraging to observe that more and more bathing waters are not only reaching the minimum quality standards set by the Bathing Water Directive but are achieving the highest (excellent) quality standards.

Many years of investment in the sewerage system, better waste water treatment and the reduction in pollution from farms have led to Europe’s bathing waters being much cleaner today than they were some 40 years ago when the original Bathing Water Directive was adopted (EU, 1976). The implementation of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive (EU, 1991) and a focus on reducing overflow from sewers have been instrumental in reducing pollution and in improving the quality of several low-quality bathing waters (EEA, 2018).

However, there are still poor quality bathing waters. The major sources of pollution responsible for faecal bacteria in bathing waters today are insufficiently treated or untreated waste water as a result of system failures, overflows from sewage treatment works or from scattered houses with misconnected drains and poorly located or poorly maintained septic tanks, poorly stored slurry or manure from livestock that washes into streams, and animal (mostly dog) and bird faeces on beaches or crowded beaches with many swimmers.

Weather is an additional factor that affects bathing water quality. In wet summers, large amounts of rainwater cause stormwater overflow and the release of diluted sewage into bathing waters or streams that discharge close to beaches. Rainwater also washes animal waste from urban and rural areas into surface water drains and rivers. In years with below average sunshine, water quality is also affected, as the sun’s ultraviolet rays kill the faecal bacteria found in the water.

In order to further improve bathing water quality, it is imperative, especially in the case of poor quality bathing waters, that the sources of pollution be assessed. The bathing water profiles prepared under the Bathing Water Directive should provide an indication of pollution sources in the catchment area of the bathing water and, together with historical data on rainfall, stream flow and sea currents, should provide information on the upstream sources of pollution to be targeted with measures. Management measures are primarily implemented for sufficient or poor quality bathing waters.

The outlook towards the 2020 goal of increasing the number of bathing waters classified as 'excellent' or 'good' under the Bathing Water Directive remains positive. This is despite the fact that compared with 2016, there was a drop in the share of EU bathing waters meeting minimum water quality standards (excellent, good or sufficient) in 2017 – from 96.3 % in 2016 to 96.0 % in 2017. The decrease was quite minor and occurred mainly because the 2017 summer was rather wet as well as because of methodological changes implemented by Romania and Sweden. The share of bathing waters that meet excellent and good quality standards is likely to increase to 2020 due to the implementation of the Bathing Water Directive and in particular the effect of measures for poor quality waters.

Country level information

Figure 2 provides the results for bathing water quality in 2017 for the EU Member States and two other EEA member countries. In general, bathing water quality was of a high standard across the countries.

Figure 2. Bathing water quality in 2017, by country

Note:
1. The category ‘quality classification not possible’ includes waters for which there were not enough samples, new bathing waters, bathing waters with changes or bathing waters that had been closed.
2. Methodology problems in Sweden have affected the results; see also the Swedish country report: https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/water/europes-seas-and-coasts/assessments/state-of-bathing-water/country-reports-2017-bathing-season/sweden-2017-bathing-water-report/view.

All reported bathing water sites in Austria, Belgium, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Latvia, Luxembourg, Malta, Romania, Slovenia and Switzerland achieved at least sufficient quality in 2017 (according to minimum quality standards set by the Bathing Water Directive). In five countries, 95 % or more of bathing waters were assessed as being of excellent quality: Luxembourg (all 12 reported bathing waters), Malta (98.9 % of all sites), Cyprus (97.3 % of all sites), Greece (95.9 % of all sites) and Austria (95.1 % of all sites).

The three EU countries with the highest numbers of bathing water sites where water quality is classified as poor are France (80 sites or 2.4 %), Italy (79 bathing water sites or 1.4 %) and Spain (38 sites or 1.7 %). In comparison with the 2016 season, the number of poor quality bathing waters decreased in all three countries. The EU countries with the highest proportion of bathing waters where water quality is poor were Estonia (7.4 % or four bathing waters), Ireland (4.9 % or seven bathing waters) and the United Kingdom (3.3 % or 21 bathing waters) (EEA, 2018).

Outlook beyond 2020

Bathing water quality is not only essential for public health reasons. Clean unpolluted water is necessary to improve ecosystem resilience. Both can be achieved with more integrated and sustainable water resource management. This would require more robust implementation of the Water Framework Directive (EU, 2000), with River Basin Management Plans developed to improve the poorer quality bathing waters. This would serve to maintain the trend towards consistently high-quality EU bathing waters beyond 2020. 

About the indicator

This indicator provides an overview of the bathing water quality in 2017 at more than 21 500 bathing waters in the EU Member States. It also presents the evolution of bathing water quality from 2011 to 2017 at EU aggregated level. During the bathing season, samples from coastal and inland bathing waters are taken and analysed against two microbiological parameters that may indicate the presence of faecal pollution, namely intestinal enterococci and Escherichia coli (also known as E. coli). After the end of the bathing season, and based on 4 years of data, bathing waters are classified into one of the bathing water quality classes (excellent, good, sufficient or poor). Some bathing waters have not been classified because there were insufficient samples or because they are new or have undergone changes affecting water quality.


Footnotes and references

EEA, 2018, European bathing water quality in 2017, EEA Report No 2/2018, European Environment Agency.

EU, 1976, Council Directive 76/160/EEC of 8 December 1975 concerning the quality of bathing water (archived).

EU, 1991, Council Directive 91/271/EEC of 21 May 1991 concerning urban waste-water treatment (OJ L 135, 30.5.1991, p. 40–52).

EU, 2000, Directive 2000/60/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 October 2000 establishing a framework for Community action in the field of water policy (OJ L 327, 22.12.2000, p. 1–73).

EU, 2006, Council Directive 2006/7/EC concerning the management of bathing water quality and repealing Directive 76/160/EEC (OJ L 64, 4.3.2006, p. 37–51).

EU, 2013, Decision No 1386/2013/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’ (OJ L 354, 28.12.2013, p. 171–200). 

 

Environmental indicator report 2018 – In support to the monitoring of the 7th Environment Action Programme, EEA report No19/2018, European Environment Agency

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